Cities and towns in Massachusetts are used to paying for their trash to be hauled away. But now, they’re having to pay big bucks for recycling, too.
And they’re trying to figure out what can be done to lighten that burden.
When residents in dozens of Western Massachusetts communities throw items in their curbside bins, that material goes to a facility in Springfield.
Chris Lucarelle, a director at the company Waste Management climbed a metal stairs in the middle of that facility recently and pointed to a massive pile of paper.
"All of the delivery vehicles come in and dump the material out on the floor,” he said. “We then take front end loaders and feed it into our in-feed system that begins the process."
The system moves paper, bottles, cans and other items through the facility on conveyor belts, to be sorted. At the end of the process, a machine squeezes like materials into cubes called bales. There are also bales there of other stuff.
"This is an example of some of the non-recyclable material that we receive and have to deal with at the facility,” he said, pointing to stacks of bales, about five feet by three feet in size. “And you can see there's textiles in here and hoses and toys.”
None of which is recyclable.
Lucarelle said when it comes to curbside recycling bins, people should really just stick to bottles, jars, tubs and lids. All that other stuff adds to the cost of recycling. The state's Department of Environmental Protection has a guide to what can and can't be recycled, here.
"But really the biggest change that we're seeing is just the value of the materials has significantly declined — 60, 70 percent in the last four years,” he said. “And that's just driven by supply and demand."
The demand disappeared when China stopped accepting materials for recycling from the U.S. two years ago, leading to the drop in value. Now, the contract the facility in Springfield had with 74 cities and towns in the western part of the state has just expired — meaning things are about to get expensive.
"And so we're looking at a potentially upwards of a $160,000 increase to the municipal budget to now pay for recycling that we've never had to pay for before," said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.
Holyoke chose not to sign a new contract with the Springfield facility, and the city expects to announce later this week what it plans to do. Sixty-six communities did agree to pay up.
Further east, cities and towns have been dealing with this added expense for a while. In Boston, it now costs $140 a ton to process recyclables, compared to $5 a ton in 2017. This fiscal year, the city had to budget $4.8 million for recycling.
Officials from several western Mass. communities gathered in Holyoke recently to discuss the problem and some ways they might lessen the load. One of the day's presenters was John Hite of the Conservation Law Foundation.
"I will say that we do have one program in place currently that is the single most effective recycling program we know,” he said. “Does anybody know what that is?”
The answer — the bottle redemption program. Bottles and cans brought to redemption centers are more valuable because they’re much more easily turned into new bottles and cans than those mixed in with everything else in a curbside bin. But Hite pointed out the state's bottle redemption bill only includes things like soda and beer cans and bottles.
"There's no reason why other containers can't be under the deposit return," he said.
A statewide ballot initiative that would have expanded the bottle bill to include bottled water, juice, sports drinks, and iced tea was defeated in 2014. Now, many community leaders who are suddenly looking at big recycling expenses are asking the state legislature to pass a new, expanded bottle bill.
They’d also like the state to begin requiring large companies that produce waste to pay into a fund to help cover the cost of recycling it.
The waste industry doesn’t like those ideas.
Steve Changaris of the National Waste and Recycling Association says they want people putting things like water bottles in their curbside bins.
"And if you take them out for an expanded bottle bill, we're going to lose the value of the material in the recycling bin,” he said.
The way to fix the cost problem is to create more demand for recycled materials, Changaris said.
"That’s the issue here," he said.
Massachusetts is working on that — providing millions in grants and loans to support new markets for recycled materials. In the meantime, Greg Cooper of the state Department of Environmental Protection said despite the added expense, cities and towns need to keep their focus on recycling.
"I think we need to stay the course,” Cooper said. “You know, the markets are going to improve. And we’ll be back into a position where recycling is competitive with trash disposal, if not more beneficial.”
Until then, cities and town are going to have to figure out how to pay for recycling.