If you have noticed an increase in costs for recycling at your local transfer station, you’re not alone. As we reported last July, Vermonters recently began to pay for recycling.
Historically, there was only a charge for dumping trash, which subsidized the cost of handling and moving recyclables. A healthy recyclables commodity market made those costs worthwhile, because countries like China were buying recyclables for a good price. Now, thanks to a recent change in the global recycling commodity market, many Americans, including Vermonters, can expect to see an increase in the cost of waste collection of about 15 percent.
“We’ve been getting phone calls about this,” said Emma Stuhl, from her office in Montpelier. She’s with the Solid Waste Program within the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and she says she is glad to have the chance to put out information on the costs of waste management, and recycling in particular.
The cost for disposing of recyclables by residents and commercial customers increased dramatically when China stopped taking U.S. recyclables. Stuhl explains that last year, China, which had been the number-one country purchasing recyclables on the commodity market, passed a rule to no longer accept recycling that was contaminated. It was an environmentally minded effort to clean up their own country of non-recyclable materials, and in their rule, China set a very low rate for acceptable contamination. The rate is nearly unachievable, according to Stuhl.
Vermont used to require residents to sort their recycling, but the state switched to no-sort recycling because lawmakers and recycling advocates believed that single-stream recycling would make things easier for residents, and lead to more recycling. Now, Vermonters can put all of their paper, metals and most plastics into one bin, rather than sorting the materials in their homes. But the material still has to be sorted before it can be processed — it just happens at a specialized facility, such as those located in Williston and Rutland.
For a number of reasons — from laziness to wishful recycling — Americans often add non-recyclable materials to their recycling bins. Plastic bags, for example, are a big problem because sorting facility workers have to dig them out from conveyor belts and machines, a timely and sometimes dangerous endeavor. These non-recyclables contaminate the process, at a rate of 6 to 10 percent in Vermont.
Vermont wasn’t sending its recyclables to China directly, but we are part of this global system, and so our own costs for disposing of recyclables have increased as a result of China’s new rule. The loss of this major buyer of recyclables has led to a glut on the commodity market globally, explains Stuhl, in turn driving down the price paid for recyclables. Now, with revenue down, waste facilities have to cover their costs for recycling, such as buildings, trucking, electricity and staff. In response, costs for disposing of recyclables have gone up around the state.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Whoa, why is it costing money to recycle?’” said Stuhl, when they didn’t have to pay for it before. But, she points out, it always did cost money for waste facilities to recycle; it’s just that now they’re charging to cover those costs.
Charlotte Low, operations manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, also hears from people who are upset at the increased cost to recycle. “I do hear people say, ‘I’m just gonna throw it in the trash,’” she says. But, in general, recycling at CVSWMD facilities is on the rise, both the number of customers overall and the number of first-time customers. She credits this to increased awareness of the social and environmental reasons for recycling.
For example, recycling is one way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since making new products like plastic is energy intensive and depends on petroleum products. Even single-use plastics that are being replaced with plant-based alternatives, like straws made from corn, use lots of energy and fertilizers made from fossil fuels to produce. By offsetting the need for new plastic, and the emissions created in making it, recycling can help reduce the emissions contributing to climate change.
Almost half of Vermonters’ trash is recyclable or compostable material like clean paper and food scraps. Landfilling these valuable natural resources not only wastes them, but also releases many more greenhouse gas emissions than reuse, recycling, food donation and composting. Recognizing this, the Vermont Legislature unanimously passed the Universal Recycling law (Act 148) in 2012 in response to the state’s stagnant recycling rates that had hovered around 30 to 36 percent for nearly two decades.
In 2017, trash disposal surprisingly increased 11 percent following a two-year decrease of 9 percent, according to a recent report on recycling, released by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Data in the report showed that Vermont still recycled slightly more material by weight in 2017, even at a time when packaging continues to get lighter.
Building local and regional markets for recyclables over the next five years will help the markets rebound. Vermont’s recyclables are finding domestic homes, such as a plant in Pennsylvania that turns mixed paper into cellulose insulation, or a market for aluminum cans to be made into rebar.
Stuhl and Low don’t see the increased cost as posing a threat to recycling; they both believe Vermonters will continue to do it, even at a cost, especially when they come to understand how they fit into these global trends. Stuhl says, “A lot of people want to do the right thing.”