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A Recycling Backlog

Why Recycling Costs More Than Garbage

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A Recycling Backlog

At the E.L. Harvey and Sons recycling plant in Hopkinton, workers wearing face masks and eye protection comb through a conveyor belt carrying newspaper pages and crushed up cardboard. Their job is to get rid of anything that’s not paper — things like plastic bags. They process about 200 tons of paper products a day.

But, lately, most of it never gets beyond the back lot.

Huge bales of paper are stacked 12-feet-high. Each bale weighs one ton. About 5,000 of them form an ever-expanding wall.

Ben Harvey
Ben Harvey is storing 5,000 tons of paper products in the lot of his Hopkinton recycling plant.
Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

“We are close to running out of room,” said Ben Harvey, the plant’s third-generation owner. “We’re kind of at the max of our ability to keep our operation going and to store our material. So, we are actively looking for an outlet for this material, because it’s not going to China.”

Long a dominant importer of used paper, China put in place strict new rules that ban recyclables if they contain even a trace of stray material.

“When you start talking about small pieces of plastic, small rubber gloves, food waste that could be in there,” said Harvey, “those are materials that we can’t get out through the process.”

Harvey says his paper meets industry standards, but not the new Chinese standards. Before January, when the new restrictions went into place, 70% of the paper here went to Chinese mills. Now he’s competing with processors from around the world to get his paper into mills in places like Turkey and India. The result: A material that once had value, is now a liability.

A year ago, a one-ton bale of paper sold for between $70 and $80. “Today, we’re paying to move this material into the marketplace,” said Harvey. “This is costing us today anywhere from $30 to $50 a ton.”

And that cost is being passed on to local communities.

“It’s now costing us more to recycle than it is to get rid of trash,” said Janice McCarthy who runs the curbside recycling program in the South Shore town of Rockland. She said in the last year, the price to get rid of a ton of recycling has jumped from about $3 to nearly $70.

“This is affecting all communities right now. And it’s hard. And I don’t blame people for getting angry,” said McCarthy. “Why are we doing this if it’s costing us that money? Because we have no choice.”

Under state law, communities can’t just get rid of recyclables as trash, although state regulators have issued a handful of waivers. Greg Cooper, director of business compliance and recycling at MassDEP, said the China restrictions are a disruption, but he believes the paper market will bounce back.

“Paper is a major commodity, it’s been recycled for over a hundred years. It is a material that’s very valuable in the sense it’s able to be reproduced into cardboard boxes and cereal boxes and other paper commodities that we use every day,” Cooper said. “If the Chinese market does not want to take these materials, new markets are certainly going to be opening up.”

Ben Harvey shares that hope, but he pointed out that paper recycling mills don’t just open overnight.

“As you can see from our piles, we don’t have a whole lot of time to hold out, waiting for this to change,” said Harvey.

Paper makes up about half of Harvey’s recycling business. The other major material that comes through his plant is plastic. It’s easier and cheaper to break down than paper and Harvey ships most of it to recycling firms located in the United States.

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