Recycling more expensive than landfill for city of Schenectady

Schenectady refuse workers collect recyclables residents set out on Columbia Street on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Schenectady refuse workers collect recyclables residents set out on Columbia Street on Friday, March 4, 2022.

SCHENECTADY — Paying to process recyclable material already costs the city 39% more than dumping it in a landfill, and it could soon go higher.

Municipal recycling is mandated by state law and recycling is an integral, almost reflexive part of any effort toward environmental stewardship.

But the recent economics have become unfavorable in recent years: In a relatively short period, the cans, bottles and paper collected at curbside have gone from a commodity worth money in a worldwide marketplace to a financial liability.

“The recycled material, we used to kind of break even on,” Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “That now [costs] 40% more than our regular waste. We expect that to go up midyear.”

The city pays $44.34 a ton to dump municipal solid waste in a landfill. It pays $61.80 a ton to properly dispose of a truckload of single stream recycling, in which everything recyclable is mixed together, inevitably with some non-recyclable material that must be separated out.

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This contamination of recyclable with non-recyclable is part of the problem: China was a major importer of recyclables until its rulers decided four years ago it would no longer be “the world’s garbage dump,” upending the industry’s business model and removing a key market for used plastic.

“There is not a market for a lot of those recyclables today,” McCarthy said. “Some of the plastics are hard to recycle, if they’re recyclable at all.”

Schenectady Commissioner of General Services Paul LaFond said city sanitation crews pick up 2,700 to 2,900 tons of recyclables per year and about 30,000 tons of non-recyclable trash.

The recyclables go to County Waste’s single-stream processing facility in Albany while the trash goes to a landfill near Seneca Falls.

Recyclables are costly to dispose of, LaFond said, but electronic waste is much worse: $600 for one pallet.

“Some municipalities won’t take E-waste anymore but Schenectady does,” he said. “There’s no way of getting around it.”

Experience suggests people will just dump their old TVs if the city doesn’t pick them up outside their homes, he explained.

On the other end of the scale, scrap metal and old appliances are still worth money. They’re not worth enough to cover the cost of pickup, but they’re worth more than cans, bottles and yogurt cups. 

Bulky metal items set out for pickup are often scooped up for their scrap value.

“A lot of times the scrappers get there before us,” LaFond said. “People frown on it, but they’re saving us time and money right now.”

More from Schenectady – The Daily Gazette

Recycling as a collective practice is not something that can be done on and off: The populace doesn’t develop and maintain the habit by doing it only when it’s economical for their city.

“You want to recycle — over the long term it’s the right thing to do,” McCarthy said.

Mary Ann Remolador, assistant director of the advocacy group Northeast Recycling Council, said there’s no question that recycling carries a cost.

“Is it worth it to continue recycling? Absolutely!” she said via email. “Recycling reduces the need to extract natural resources, it saves energy by making use of the embedded energy in recycled items, and the saved energy reduces greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.”

McCarthy said creation of secondary markets for recycled materials could improve the economics of recycling.

State-supported research is underway into increasing marketability of recycled materials (glass at SUNY Alfred and plastic at the University at Buffalo); into the efficiency of municipal programs (Stony Brook University); and into development of localized economic and cooperative marketing opportunities (SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry).

Asked about the current high cost of recycling, the state Department of Environmental Conservation offered a forward-looking statement on the economics of the practice:

“New York state continues to implement comprehensive waste management efforts to address the impacts of New York’s solid waste by reducing the amount of materials sent to landfills and significantly increasing waste reduction, reuse, and recycling. DEC continues to find new innovative and meaningful strategies to help recycling markets and municipal recycling programs find new ways to recycle consumer products, including closely partnering with SUNY across the state to help develop strategies to advance more sustainable material management practices.”

More from Schenectady – The Daily Gazette

Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

niskyperson March 9, 2022
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Maybe the county needs someone who understands waste technology. With GE in our backyard, why don’t we do a research plasma gasification generator with them?