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Recycling gets more expensive as market shifts

Recycling gets more expensive as market shifts

Region's main processor of recyclables to charge more as value of material plummets
Recycling gets more expensive as market shifts
District ManagerDan Kurtz walks from on paper at County Waste/Waste Connections in Albany.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY — Recycling that soda can and newspaper is getting more expensive as the value of the material in them drops.

The area’s only processing facility for single-stream recycling — cardboard, glass, paper, metal and plastic mixed together — is raising prices to accept what it essentially had been taking for free.

About 12,000 tons of recyclables are trucked each month to the Sierra Processing facility in Albany, where a corps of 120 workers and an array of high tech equipment sort it all out for sale to various recyclers. Sierra is a subsidiary of County Waste, which is a subsidiary of Waste Connections Inc.

County Waste District General Manager Dan Kurtz said China’s fairly abrupt policy change to no longer accept many types of recyclables threw the industry worldwide into disarray at the start of this year.

“China basically got tired of taking the world’s trash,” he said. County Waste had been processing recyclables for free for years then processing and selling them to cover its costs, he said, but “that model is now broken, basically. We’re going to have to start charging more for the service.”

Each day at the Albany materials recovery facility, a jumbled mess arrives containing recyclables such as newspaper, glass bottles and aluminum cans, as well as non-recyclables as diverse as used diapers, lengths of rope and a dead skunk.

“You name it, it’s been in here,” Kurtz said.

The staff and machinery sort it all out. About 15 percent is non-recyclable trash that was dropped in recycling bins for benign reasons (people trying to recycle more) or apathy (some people just don’t care about waste) or by mistake.

This trash content averages 25 percent nationally and hits 30 percent to 40 percent in some major cities. “The Capital District does an exceptionally good job relative to the national average of keeping trash out,” Kurtz said.

County Waste sells the glass, aluminum, steel and plastic it collects mostly to North American recyclers, and most of the cardboard stays right in New York. So China’s policy change hasn’t cut off its market for these items, though it has caused the prices to plummet.

The sticking point was paper, a major component of the single stream flow. China now bars import recyclable paper that is not at least 99.5 percent pure, no more than 0.5 percent of glass or metal bits mixed in with the paper, and that's virtually unattainable, Kurtz said.

The Albany facility and others like it can achieve only 97 or 98 percent pure paper, even with all their high-tech equipment. That 97 percent pure paper is still recyclable — the impurities are filtered out as the paper is turned to pulp. 

But China doesn’t want the impurities imported any longer. 

“When they cut that off at the beginning of the year, that had a huge impact on us and every other recycler,” Kurtz said. 

Six months after China shut the door, County Waste is sending paper to recyclers in other Asian nations — mainly India and Vietnam, but also Indonesia and Malaysia. Mills there recycle it into finished paper, which is then exported to China.

Kurtz said County Waste remains committed to recycling. To do otherwise would waste landfill space, be ecologically unsustainable, and go against what is apparently a strong consumer preference in this region. Not to mention breaking state law.

“The public can help us out by cleaning up, paying closer attention to what they put in the bin,” he added.

Farther west in the Mohawk Valley, recyclables are shipped to the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority’s single-stream sorting facility. Fulton County is one of five counties sharing the costs and profits of the facility. Recycling Coordinator Dianne Woske said the arrangement is working well for Fulton County so far — it has had a net expense in only two of the 14 months since it started.

Also factoring into the equation is that Fulton County operates its own landfill, which has a finite lifespan. If it started dumping recyclables there, each ton would displace one ton of non-recyclable trash that the county would be paid to accept. “Saving landfill space doesn’t sound as good as saving polar bears,” Woske said, but it is good for the environment. 

There's also the monetary incentive: The county gets $55 per ton minimum for trash dumped at the landfill.

“We are financially very stable in this department because we’re tied in to the landfill,” she said.

However, Woske is aware that price of and demand for recyclables is volatile.

“We’re worried about Oneida-Herkimer saying, ‘We can’t get rid of this, we have nowhere to go.’”

Fulton County has been trying to build public support for recycling for decades, Woske said. She hopes the changes in the recycling industry won’t reduce public enthusiasm, because the county remains committed to single-stream recycling. The county saw a 20 percent increase in material recycled after going single-stream in 2017. Also, it was able to close its labor-intensive sorting facility.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation said it is working with communities to maintain support for recycling.

The state does not set quotas for recycling, it helps local solid-waste management agencies set their own goals for waste reduction. 

The state’s position is that recycling is a long-term commitment to sustainability that needs to be maintained amid cost fluctuations in order to be successful. To help this happen, it runs a variety of programs to reduce the waste stream, improve stewardship and increase recycling.

In a statement Friday, DEC said:

“Recycling markets in New York are experiencing volatility due to changing trends, particularly trends overseas. Because of this volatility, some operations may find it challenging to find suitable outlets for some material. These changing markets may impact recycling plans and goals established by local solid waste planning units. DEC works with communities to remain committed to long-term and long-range methods of sustainable solid waste management while dealing with short-term market volatility.”

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