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Upheaval In Recyclables Market May Cause CT Towns To Lose Serious Bucks

Upheaval In Recyclables Market May Cause CT Towns To Lose Serious Bucks

Harford Courant, July 10, 2019  

By Don Stacom and Lydia Gerike

Until this year, Bristol was cashing in on recycling: A contractor paid $9 for each ton of scrap glass, aluminum cans, paper and plastic that city delivered.

Now the money is flowing — swiftly — in the opposite direction, with the city preparing to pay about $75 a ton to get rid of the same stuff.

The outlook is no better in New Britain. The city took in $38,000 from recycling last year, but expects to pay out $335,000 this year.

Like communities across the country, Bristol and New Britain are getting hammered by a dramatic upheaval in the market for recyclables.

China, long the chief buyer of American plastics, stopped importing recyclables at the end of 2017. At the same time, Americans are discarding a steadily increasing amount of material — particularly plastic packaging — and creating a market choked with supply and desperately short on demand. 
“Everything’s been flipped on its head,” said Milford Mayor Ben Blake, whose town made $85,000 in recycling revenue last year but expects to pay out $250,000 this year. “Recycling went from a positive to negative.”

For small towns, mid-sized suburbs and big cities alike, the abrupt switch has been sobering.

Columbia expects to go from $2,207 in revenue to $12,166 in expense, while Bridgeport anticipates losing its $129,512 of profit and taking a $394,380 hit in new costs, according to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“We have big issues,” Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said. “We’re estimating this will cost our taxpayers close to $400,000 this year. It’s a global issue that has now rolled downward and is being handed to local governments.”

So far, most municipalities are paying the extra costs from their budgets. But they’re not ruling out perhaps eventually instituting a “pay to throw” fee that charges property owners individually for the amount of recycling they leave out for pick up.

Based on a model that worked since the 1980s, Connecticut requires communities to separate recyclable trash from the regular waste stream that’s sent to trash-burning plants. But the recycling industry has complained in recent years that even though metal prices have stayed strong, the value of recycled glass, plastics and other materials is dropping.

Cardboard, for instance, used to be profitable, but now has a return of next to nothing, according to Mike Paine, president of East Granby-based Paine’s Inc. Recycling and Rubbish Removal. He predicted that recycling cardboard will soon be a money-loser.

“The list of attractive recyclable material is dwindling — we’re recycling items that have no market for reuse,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “Plastic and glass are items nobody wants to buy. We’re paying a third-party recycler who still can’t sell them.”

Right before our eyes back to top

Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said: "The market is collapsing right before our very eyes.”

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said nearly all of the 110 towns in her organization face quickly rising costs. Even communities that have long-term contracts with recycling companies will take the hit eventually, she said.

“What was once a revenue generator is now costing towns money,” Gara said.

Mark Moriarty, director of New Britain’s public works department, said part of the answer must be to buy less and reuse more whenever possible. Moriarty suggested residents stop using single-use plastic bags, for instance, and perhaps buy reusable aluminum water bottles rather than purchasing single-use plastic bottles.

“For years the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle — have been stressed as a way to help the environment and reduce the costs of managing waste," he said in a statement.

“Up to this point, the emphasis was primarily on recycling," Moriarty said. "Moving forward though, it’s clear that the other two R’s, reduce and reuse, are the real keys to reducing costs and living more sustainably.”

New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart is trying to get the message out to taxpayers that throwing things out — whether into blue recycling barrels or green trash containers — isn’t free.

“Be mindful of what you are placing in the blue recycling bins — recycling now costs the city money,” she wrote in a Facebook post over the weekend. “Consider the items you are using and know that they have a cost.”