Janet Swiger removes plastic bags from a commingled recyclables container at the county solid waste site on Vashti Drive in Morehead City. State officials told the News-Times, despite changes in Chinese buying and price increases, they believe recycling is still a viable way to reduce waste. (Dylan Ray photo)

RALEIGH — Despite concerns expressed by some about the viability and worth of local government recycling programs, the head of the state’s program said recently that the effort is still effective and necessary.

In a recent interview, Wendy Worley, chief of the recycling and materials management section in the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, said even though China – one of the major buyers of U.S. recyclables — has cut back on American products it takes in, “markets are still good, and demand is high.”

In fact, she said, American manufacturers that use recycled goods to make new products “can’t get enough” and are actually looking for new sources of materials.

“It’s true that prices (for municipal and county services) are going up some,” Ms. Worley said, “but we’re going through an adjustment period as the industry gets used to new policies.

“People need to realize that recycled products, like oil or any other internationally traded commodities, have highs and lows” in terms of prices. We in North Carolina have been tracking those for 25 years,” Ms.

Worley said. “There have been dips and increases, and there will always be, but the industry is very viable.”

She said if users put the right things in recycling bins or roll-out containers – things like aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles and paper – they can rest assured they aren’t all sitting in some warehouse, never to be shipped anywhere and reused.

Are we just “pretending to recycle?”

Ms. Worley’s predecessor in the state job, Scott Muow, now retired from state government and senior director of strategy and research at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit based in Falls Church, Va., said “it is still worthwhile and we are not pretending (to recycle).

“We are experiencing a somewhat unusual extended period of low prices while markets react to China,” Mr. Muow said, “but recycled materials are still moving steadily into markets and products, capturing major greenhouse gas benefits along the way and sustaining jobs in the recycling sector.”

What happened, according to Ms. Worley, is in January 2018, China stopped importing some recyclables, such as mixed paper, mixed plastic and any load of recyclables with more than 0.5 percent contamination, or trash.

That led to an overabundance of materials in the U.S., and the value of one ton of residential mixed recyclables dropped to $43 in 2018, down from $75 in 2017.

According to a state flyer Ms. Worley provided, about 14% of incoming recyclables to sorting facilities are trash. The average cost for a material recovery facility to process one ton of residential recyclables is $70.

With the value of that ton at $43, MRFs are generally operating at a loss, so they have to pass the costs on to customers, haulers and local governments.

But, the agency said in the May flyer, “China has not ruined recycling in America, as national headlines might have us believe. It is shining a light on some long-standing and much needed improvements to our recycling programs.”

America, according to the Ms. Worley, needs to reduce the trash in recyclables loads and contaminated recyclables, like bottles with liquid in them. That will require sustained educational and enforcement campaigns. In addition, domestic markets for recyclables must be further developed.

The state, she said, is working with local governments, advising them to look at ways to increase efficiencies and thus lower costs in their entire waste stream, not just recycling.

But, she added, Americans need to get a better understanding of what materials are acceptable, and haulers and local governments need to work together to make that happen.

There are grants available through the state to improve program efficiency and implement contamination reduction strategies.

Ms. Worley said it’s not time to go backward or to give up on recycling. In North Carolina alone, there are about 670 recycling companies and they employ, as of May, 16,700 people. Those jobs, she said, depend upon the recyclables received from local governments.

She urged consumers to support those industries and jobs by buying, whenever possible, products with recycled content.

She said it’s still true recycled products don’t go to landfills, slowing the need for local governments to spend millions of dollars to expand existing ones or build new ones and reducing emissions of landfill greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.

Why the changes?

When interviewed back in 2016, Mr. Muow said prices industries were paying for recycled glass, aluminum, paper and other products were in a “trough,” and recycling companies had been forced to renegotiate some contracts.

At that time, he said, China’s economy had slowed and the demand for recycled products had decreased. When oil prices dropped worldwide it also hurt demand for recycled materials, especially those made in part from oil. Plastic, for example, is derived from oil, so recycled plastic becomes less attractive when oil prices are low.

It’s a different kind of adjustment now, Ms. Worley said, but it’s still an adjustment. He noted it’s evidence dips and increases in demand for and value of a product depends on a global market.

Town programs

Those changes don’t make things easy for local governments, however.

For example, in Cedar Point, Administrator Chris Seaberg said the town’s contract with Waste Industries, the garbage and recycling provider, is supposed to go up 2.5% this year, as allowed under the contract, which is based on the U.S. Consumer Price Index.

That means the cost to the customers will go up about $1 per month. The fee is paid through an enterprise fund, not through property taxes. The fee for all services will go from $135 in 2018-19 to $150 in 2019-20.

The total cost of garbage service – once a week garbage pickup and the twice-a-month recycling service – was $115,000 this fiscal year.

“We’ve been able to keep that relatively flat in recent years, but there was some inflation this year,” Mr. Seaberg said.

He said recycling service – the products go to Sonoco in Jacksonville – is pretty popular in town. Residents participate in a range of 70 to 80%, rolling 65-gallon containers to the street once every two weeks.

Mr. Seaberg said there hasn’t been any talk of eliminating or changing recycling service to save money.

“We have seen that in some other (local government) entities elsewhere, but it’s not something I think the public wants to give up,” he said.

He’s also in touch with officials at Sonoco and is confident the materials Cedar Point customers recycle really do get recycled.

In Cape Carteret, the cost of garbage and recycling service for 2019-20, so far is estimated at $181,192.

There is no increase in solid waste collection costs in the most recent version of the town’s budget.

The cost pays for garbage service each Monday and recycling service every other Saturday, both in roll-out containers.

Town commissioners, in budget work sessions this spring, have not talked about eliminating the recycling service or changing it. But Town Manager Zach Steffey said that could change in the future if the town begins to see significant cost increases year after year.

In Emerald Isle, there are no plans to eliminate or change the recycling service.

The town’s contract for garbage and recycling is with Simmons & Simmons Management of Swansboro, and in his recommended budget, Interim Town Manager Randy Martin proposed a $1 per month increase in the annual solid waste fee, bringing the total to $240, or $12 per month.

Even with costs rising, Mr. Martin said the garbage and recycling service is effective and the cost reasonable. Residents get weekly recycling service and garbage service twice a week.

The total solid waste budget for the town in 2019-20 is proposed at $1.51 million, up from $1.48 million in 2018-19. That’s nearly 14% of the proposed $10.9 million general fund budget.

Mr. Martin said recycling costs make up only a small percentage of the overall cost increase in the town’s solid waste program, however.

 When he was manager in Franklin, Va., the town was part of a regional solid waste management agency with 1.7 million “customers,” including Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, he said. At one point, people were wondering whether recycling was worthwhile and some local governments considered dropping the service.

Residents, he said, were not happy about that possibility —  they’ve bought into recycling.

“We’d sometimes get a call (in Franklin) if someone saw one recyclable in a garbage truck,” he said. “They’ve vested in recycling. They believe in it.”

The waste management agency eventually worked out a good contract and recycling continued there, Mr. Martin said, but he agreed Americans need to do a better job in order to keep the service viable.

“We still have a lot people who just want to put everything together – garbage and recyclables – and they sometimes kind of use the recycling container as a second garbage can,” he said.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to get ‘cleaner’ recyclables, with less trash in them. Penalties don’t seem to work well with this kind of thing, so I guess we’re stuck looking at figuring out ways to improve voluntary compliance.”

However local governments deal with the situation, Ms. Worley said, it’s important not to give up.

“Our current system of collecting recyclables is the most cost-effective way of hauling and transporting materials, yields the most participation and allows residents to comply with the state’s ban on landfilling aluminum cans and plastic bottles,” she said, echoing the language in the flyer she provided. “Also, Americans love to recycle; removing the service comes with considerable and extended public relations challenges.”

She advises local governments to seek contracts that establish a clear list of the materials accepted and facilitate regular communications with the contractor or contractors.

The DEQ’s Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service can provide contract examples and provide expert one-on-one consultations to local governments, she said.

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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