Fee hikes for recyclables set to decrease, says County Waste as it improves efficiency and finds new markets

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
A resident dumps crushed cardboard into a container at the Knox transfer station.

ALBANY COUNTY — Towns throughout the area are suffering from hikes in recycling costs.

As China banned imports of much solid waste, County Waste — the sole single-stream recycler for Capital Region municipalities — began charging $120 a ton for commingled recyclables after previously taking it for free.

Starting this month, the $120 fee will be cut in half to $60 per ton, according to Dan Kurtz, the district manager at County Waste. He said the company’s new efficiencies are allowing it to cut the costs for municipalities. He also cited the markets the company now uses, instead of shipping to China.

One local hauler, at Wright Disposal, said he found far cheaper fees in Vermont and subsequently County Waste reduced its fee. 

“There’s a lot of reasons,” said Kurtz, of the original price increase. “China’s the biggest reason.” China has also lowered the threshold of contamination for imported scrap materials to as low as 0.5 percent, which Kurtz described as nearly impossible.

“That basically crashed the market for recycled commodities,” he said.

Cheaper to dispose of garbage than recyclables

Jeff Alexander, who works at Berne’s transfer station, said that the increase in cost for the town began a couple months ago.

“We didn’t have to pay anything to get rid of it; now we have to pay $120 a ton … ,” said Alexander. “That’s over $6,000.” Berne’s annual town budget totals $2.3 million.

In Berne, there were 56 tons of commingled recycling hauled away last year, a little less than five tons a month, said Alexander. This means that even the cost of garbage removal — which had caused grief for towns as prices increased and the nearby landfill threatened to close — is less than the cost to recycle.

“It only costs $66 a ton to dispose of our garbage … ,” said Alexander. “It’s actually cheaper to throw it out than it is to try to recycle it — by almost half.”

The town produced about 908 tons of garbage last year, he said, costing just under $60,000.

“It was somewhere under $54 a ton last year,” he said. “That’s quite a jump.”

Knox, has also been affected by the $120-per-ton fee, said the town’s highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury. Glass, plastic, and paper fall under the fee, even though they are separated at the transfer station, he said. Salisbury explained that the plastic is sorted separately to be baled, in order to save space. Glass and tin cans are in one container, as are paper and cardboard.

“There would be a lot of extra trips,” Salisbury explained, referring to taking the scrap to the recycling facility. Combined, the town ships out 11 to 12 tons a month.

Westerlo Highway Superintendent Jody Ostrander said that Westerlo would spend about $18,000 a year if the cost of commingled recycling stayed at the $120-per-ton rate. He said that the only solution is to increase the town budget in the coming year, something he said could be difficult when the town must stay under a 2-percent increase in taxes.

“I already proposed to [the town] that I’m going to dump it in the garbage, and I got threatened that that can’t happen,” he said. “Because garbage is $52 a ton, which is cheaper than $120.”

Westerlo hauls out about 1,500 tons of garbage a year, said Ostrander.

Guilderland has also been hit by the fee. Last year, the town had 90 tons of commingled recyclables, said David Corey, the foreman at the town’s transfer station; the town took away more in scrap metal — 110 tons — as well as 108 tons of paper, 40 tons of electronic waste, and 106 tons of brush, and 2,000 tons of construction debris.

Workers at the transfer station sort out cardboard and newspaper as well as metal from the commingled recycling, said Corey, which the town can make money from although residents can also sort these into separate bins themselves.

“Now just for a tractor-trailer load we got $80,” he said, of the paper and cardboard. “We used to get upwards of $2,000.”

Corey suggests that residents have everything sorted ahead of time in order to maximize the profits from shipping out items like paper and metal and minimizing fees for trash and commingled recycling.

“If they recycle properly, the costs really do drop,” he said.

In Rensselaerville, after the town’s recycling coordinator Jon Whitbeck announced at the July town board meeting that the town would be charged $120 per ton for commingled recyclables, the town board surmised that the money earned from scrap metal could offset the costs. Whitbeck estimated that the town generates about 50 tons of commingled recyclables a year; last year, he reported a total of just over 57 tons.

Likewise, in Berne, Alexander said that residents should be sorting out items from their recycling or garbage to go into other bins. He encourages residents to put bottles and cans that yield 5-cent fees with deposit into separate containers so the town can recoup money from them.

“Because now you’re paying money for a can that’s worth five cents,” he said, of the alternative.

Alexander said that the town made money in 2017 from some items, including: about $1,000 per ton on cardboard, $1,000 on paper, $4,000 on metal, $600 on returnable bottles, and $700 for textiles.

Still, some items must go into the commingled bin like plastic containers, glass, or bottles and aluminum cans that are not returnable. Alexander also notes that some residents simply won’t sort their recyclable items, or sometimes even mix their recyclables in with their garbage.

The town of New Scotland, rather than dealing with costs at a transfer station, has borne the increased cost through its contract with the trash hauler Wright Disposal. New Scotland offers free garbage pickup for its residents through Wright Disposal, but had to amend its contract with the company in May, unanimously approving an addendum of $15,685. The company’s costs of disposing single-stream recyclables had gone from $10 per ton to $40 per ton. In August, Wright Disposal again asked for an amended contract because it would now cost $80 per ton to dispose of the recycling.

County Waste is now creating a one-year contract with the city of Albany, rather than a three-year contract as formerly. The new contract will be for a year due to the uncertainties, said Kurtz.

The city and 14 other municipalities (including Berne, Knox, Westerlo, New Scotland, Bethlehem, Guilderland, Altamont, and Voorheesville) are part of a loose partnership, the Capital Region Solid Waste Management Partnership, formerly known as ANSWERS (Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System). Ostrander said that Westerlo meets quarterly with other members of the group.

Where waste goes

“Every community in our area uses them … ,” said Corey, of County Waste. “There’s no other outlets in our area.”

County Waste serves all municipalities in the Capital District, and its service reaches as far away as Boston and Montreal in some cases, said Kurtz. A map of its service area stretches from Vermont to the New Jersey border.

County Waste only brings in only commingled recyclables to its facility, where it sorts out the different items by material.

“I like to say we unmake the cookie at the facility,” said Kurtz.

County Waste ships paper to three to five different countries in Southeast Asia, whereas it formerly shipped paper solely to China; cardboard is shipped to two different mills, one near Syracuse and the other near Buffalo; metal is taken to different local facilities.

“Plastics go all over North America depending on the type, and the aluminum also stays in the United States and goes to aluminum can recyclers,” said Kurtz.

County Waste used to send some cardboard and plastic waste to facilities in China, said Kurtz, but it primarily sent paper waste there. The company is now shipping to other countries in Southeast Asia like India, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

He also said County Waste has now taken steps to ensure its products have less contamination. It has slowed the process in which waste is sorted and hired more workers to ensure there are fewer non-paper items in the final product.

County Waste has also invested $4 million for a machine that scans recyclables and removes non-paper products with a puff of air. County Waste started using the new machine in early June, Kurtz said.

“So our quality’s improved quite a bit from that technology,” he said.

Their efforts, said Kurtz, cut the charges in half, starting in August. Towns are now being notified, he said. But because it take months to transport recyclables to foreign countries, and because the countries aren’t as established as China was in the industry, costs could change again, he cautioned.

Kurtz can recall only on other time when products dipped so low in price, which was when the Great Recession a decade ago caused the global economy to falter but then it was only months before the value of recyclables was normal again, he said.

“With China out of the picture, there really is no light at the end of the tunnel for several years,” he said.

But Kurtz said that, despite the new costs incurred by the company, it still makes sense to keep single-stream recycling. Landfill space is limited and recycling keeps materials out of that wastestream, he said.

The convenience of single-stream recycling has caused an increase in recycling, Kurtz said.

Commingled, or single-stream recycling, was touted several years ago as a way to encourage recycling because of the convenience of not having to sort items. A 2009 study from the Container Recycling Institute found that, while commingled recycling does take in more recyclable material and is more efficient, it has a smaller and lower quality output.

“Right or wrong, it was the way it was developed over the last 15 to 20 years …,” Kurtz said. “We as an industry and we as a community have to decide what we’re going to do from here.”

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