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Cities and towns face soaring recycling costs, CCM urges state action

Cities and towns face soaring recycling costs, CCM urges state action

Hartford Courant, March 8, 2019

By Greg Hladky

Recycling costs for cities and towns across Connecticut are soaring and municipal leaders are appealing to Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly to take action to ease this growing financial burden on local taxpayers. 

A drastic change in recycling markets has produced a glut of paper, plastics and other materials that not long ago provided cities and towns with revenue. Now municipalities have to pay to get rid of their recyclables.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities called Monday for a prohibition on any new state recycling mandates until long-term solutions are found. The lobbying group is also urging bans on single-use plastic bags and straws, expansion of the deposit system for plastic and glass containers, and new restrictions on package materials and package sizing.

“Everything’s been flipped on its head,” Milford Mayor Ben Blake said of the changes in the recycling market that are becoming a major financial headache for municipalities.

“The [recycling] market is collapsing right before our eyes,” said Matt Knickerbocker, Bethel’s first selectman.

The Courant reported in October that China’s refusal to accept recycled materials from the U.S. and recycling issues with plastic bags and other products were creating major cost problems for recycling companies and municipalities.

China once imported more than $5.6 billion worth of U.S. recycled materials a year, but has effectively halted all such imports.

Some Asian and European nations have slightly increased imports of U.S. recycling since China imposed its recycling importation ban, but experts say that doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of the Chinese market. The result has been a massive recycling backup in the U.S. and rising disposal costs.

According to CCM officials, the change in China’s policy is expected to be a long-term issue because Chinese authorities are now seeking to focus on recycling their own domestic trash.

Plastic shopping bags have also become a major issue for recycling operations. The bags keep getting put into recycling bins, but they foul sorting machines that aren’t designed to handle them, causing daily halts to clear them away or repair the damage they cause.

People are also attempting to recycle all kinds of other materials that simply aren’t recyclable, including things like Styrofoam, plastic straws, dog and cat food bags, loose plastic caps, shredded paper, prescription bottles, take-out food containers, gift wrap and food contaminated containers. Glass that gets broken in recycling bins is also a troublesome issue for recycling systems, officials said.

Another proposal being backed by CCM is “mandatory education of the citizens and businesses about proper recycling.” 



Recycling education back to top

State officials have a recycling education program they claim has been very successful, but officials of some recycling operations say much more needs to be done to prevent people from throwing the wrong materials into single-source recycling bins.

“This change [in the recycling market] will result in significant cost increases for local governments and a potential higher tax bill for local property taxpayers,” Joe DeLong, CCM’s executive director, said.

Bridgeport has seen its recycling program go from producing more than $129,000 in annual revenue for the city in the current fiscal to an estimated expense in the coming fiscal year of $394,380, according to CCM records.

In Waterbury, officials said a recycling program that generated $15,022 in revenue is now expected to cost the city an estimated $330,000 next year.

Milford’s recycling shift has transformed an approximately $85,000 revenue source into an expense currently estimated at $250,000 for the coming fiscal year.

Officials in Plymouth reported they had been getting $9.05 a ton in revenue from recycling and will now be forced to pay an estimated $70 a ton to get rid of the town’s recycled materials.

Lamont’s administration has proposed placing a state fee or tax on single-use plastic shopping bags and lawmakers are already considering a variety of bills that would ban or phase out the use of such bags.

Lamont is also calling for expanding Connecticut’s bottle deposit system to cover liquor and wine bottles, and there are legislative proposals to have the deposit system cover all types of plastic and glass beverage containers.

Environmental groups and grocery retailers are also calling for a ban on thin, single-use plastic bags and a fee on heavier plastic or paper shopping bags.

“I think we have to look at all the aspects of this,” the co-chair of the legislature’s Environment Committee, Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, said Monday. She said lawmakers are concerned with solid waste and recycling issues not only because of the growing fiscal pressures on local taxpayers. “There’s also a huge environmental piece to this.”

Cohen said the environment panel is planning to conduct public hearings on March 11 and March 18 on a variety of bills dealing with recycling, plastic bags and other solid waste concerns.

On Monday, Trader Joe’s became the latest major retail operation to announce plans to ban or phase out single-use plastic shopping bags. Trader Joe’s officials also said their stores will replace single-use produce bags with biodegradable and compostable options, and halt the use of Styrofoam trays.