Recycling cost piles up
STAMFORD — The city was paid $95,000 last year for the used bottles, cans, bags, boxes, wrappers and containers residents throw in their recycling bins each week.
This year, the city will have to pay a company $700,000 to take them.
The market for recyclables has flipped on its ear, and Dan Colleluori, supervisor of solid waste and recycling, who had to go before the Board of Finance last week to ask that the money be drawn from the city’s contingency fund to meet the unexpected expense.
Blame it on China, which has been the biggest importer of recyclables on the planet since the 1990s. Last year the Chinese, citing a glut of material — increasingly contaminated with garbage — announced they would stop accepting an array of recyclables, according to industry reports Colleluori shared with the board.
Then, in April, “China closed its doors,” Colleluori said. “Unless the U.S. comes up with its own technology, there’s no market for this stuff. It’s a world problem.”
In May, Stamford’s recycling contractor, City Carting, called him with a warning, Colleluori said.
“They said, ‘You’re going to have to start paying for it,’” he said.
Not only was there no way to estimate the cost, but City Carting’s contract was to end June 30, Colleluori said. He’d put out a bid request, but only City Carting and one other company responded, he said.
“I expected they would come back with a charge of maybe $5 a ton, something like that,” he said. “I was flabbergasted when I saw the bids.”
City Carting’s price was $58 a ton to process the 12,000 tons of recyclables Stamford collects each year. The other company wanted $80, Colleluori said.
“For the nine years I’ve been here, recycling has been a revenue source. We earned as much as $250,000 a year,” he said. “Now we not only lose that revenue, we add a significant cost.”
The same is true for cities worldwide.
One reason the market has collapsed, industry reports say, is the glut of recyclables.
Another reason is single-stream recycling — collecting paper and cardboard together with plastic, glass and cans — a practice that began 20 years ago. Since then, recycled material has become increasingly contaminated. Recycled paper, for example, is less pure, making it harder to sell.
People have made things worse by throwing prohibited items into their recycling bins. In Connecticut, the prohibited materials include plastic bags, plastic wrap, shredded paper, Styrofoam, paper cups, take-out food containers, aerosol containers, ice cream containers, plastic plates, bowls and utensils, and anything with food in it.
According to industry reports, the situation has become so bad that one-fifth of the recycled material sent to China for processing was contaminated. In April, when China said it would stop accepting a slew of items, it also set a super-low contamination rate, .5 percent.
Now recycled material is stacking up in warehouses, and getting trucked to landfills or incinerators, in the United States and other countries around the globe.
“So all that work that I do to put the stuff in the green Toter (bin) and bring it out to the curb … are we actually going to be sending it to a landfill now?” finance board Chairman Richard Freedman asked during the meeting.
“No,” Colleluori said. “You’re just being charged for it.”
He said City Carting told him it will be able to sell some of the material.
“Mostly paper and cardboard,” Colleluori said. “The plastic and glass are the biggest problem.”
It doesn’t look like it will go away soon, he said.
“The U.S. has to sink some money into figuring out how to reuse these items,” Colleluori said. “If it happens, if the market turns around, the city can cancel the contract and rebid it to collect revenue again. It’s standard in these contracts.”
But recycling is still the law, and still cheaper than throwing the items in the trash, Colleluori said. Recyclables comprise 32 percent of the waste collected in Stamford, he said.
“It would cost the city $850,000 a year more if it went into the garbage stream,” Colleluori said.
The finance board voted to release the $700,000 from the contingency fund to cover the new City Carting contract. Much of the money in the $6.5 million fund is tentatively earmarked for labor negotiations expected to be settled, an anticipated number of storm cleanups, additional overtime expenses for police officers and firefighters, and other items likely to crop up in a fiscal year.
The fund contains about $1 million for unexpected expenses, such as the recycling contract, said Jay Fountain, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Management.
“So this will leave just about nothing left?” Freedman said.
“Yes,” Fountain confirmed.