Despite a crash in the global market for recyclable materials, Vermont’s trash haulers and waste-management districts continue to support Vermont’s law which mandates that paper, aluminum, cardboard, steel, glass and hard plastics be recycled and not sent to a landfill.
“We believe in recycling. It is the right thing to do, but if recycling is going to work it has to have economic value as well as environmental and social value,” said Joe Fusco, vice president for Casella Waste Systems of Rutland. “Right now there is no value at all for some recyclable materials. This is the worst market in a generation.”
Casella Waste Systems, the largest trash hauler in the state, sells recyclable materials directly to buyers. The biggest problem over the past year, Fusco said, is China no longer accepts recyclable materials from the United States. Last year, China, which had been the world’s biggest importer of recyclable trash, enacted an anti-pollution program that closed its doors to waste paper, metals or plastic unless they are 99.5-percent clean, which is a nearly impossible target.
“China’s import restrictions on recyclables has caused a global oversupply of many recyclable materials, and mixed paper was the main Vermont material that had been sent to Chinese markets,” said Josh Kelly, materials management section chief for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. “Generally speaking, many recyclables still have market value, like aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles and jugs, and cardboard.”
“It’s important to know that downturns in the markets are not unusual,” said Sarah Reeves, executive director of the Chittenden Solid Waste Management District (CSWMD). “Commodity markets fluctuate all the time, and it’s normal to go through downturns and upswings. What’s different this time is that the downturn was prompted by a large-scale policy decision by a major consumer of recycled products. In the long-run, this is a good thing. It’s driving global investment in U.S. and it’s forcing U.S. recyclers to improve their processes and invest in their facilities and equipment.”
In the spring of 2018, the Vermont Legislature authorized the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources to issue a waiver allowing mixed paper disposal waivers if insufficient recycling markets exist. This provision expires July 1, 2019. To date, no waivers have been requested, according to Kelly.
“None of the acceptable, properly prepared materials that come to our MRF are being stockpiled, landfilled or incinerated. It still remains more economical as well as environmentally beneficial to recycle these materials,” Reeves said.
Even if China reverses course and resumes buying recyclable materials, that is not a long-term solution, according to Fusco. He thinks what the U.S. needs are more American companies that buy waste materials and produce goods from them.
If the Vermont law is to work as designed, Fusco said, everyone involved, the state, Solid Waste Districts, trash haulers and the public, need to get together and figure out a way to pay for the collection of recyclable materials.
“We need to create a system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable,” he said.
In 2012, the Vermont Legislature passed the Universal Recycling Law (Act 148), which banned three major categories of materials from Vermonters’ trash bins over the course of six years: “blue bin” recyclables, paper, plastic, metal were banned in July 2015; leaf, yard debris and clean wood in 2016; and food scraps by July 2020. According to Kelly, 72 percent of the paper and containers that Vermonters throw away are being recycled.
In response to the shrinking market, last year Vermont lawmakers gave transfer stations permission to charge for the collection of recyclables, which Act 148 originally required to be collected without a separate fee to customers.
The Chittenden Vermont Waste Management District raised its fees, according to Sarah Reeves, CVMD executive director, to $25/ton for CVMD member communities (Chittenden County towns) from $21/ton. ($50/ton to $55/to non-member towns).
“The increases were a direct result of the losses we experienced, due first to the uncertainty in the overseas fiber and paper markets at the end of 2017, and then to the dramatic shift in market outlets for those products in early 2018. We, like much of the U.S., had been sending our mixed paper products to China, with some exceptions for domestically marketed cardboard,” Reeves said.
“People may have noticed a new fee for recyclables at transfer stations, but it’s still much cheaper to recycle than to throw stuff in the trash,” said Cassandra Hemenway, outreach manager for the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District. Hemenway said the collection of recyclable material was never really “free,” because “the cost was in the trash fee.”
According to Hemenway, most central Vermont recyclables go to the materials recovery facility in Chittenden County. The Chittenden facility, she said, has been marketing its recyclables to U.S. markets on the west coast for several years, so the impact in Vermont has been less dramatic than what has happened in other states, but that could change.
“Municipalities across America are now sending their materials to the same U.S. markets that Vermont has been using, so it’s possible they could get overwhelmed with materials and theoretically could put the brakes on what they accept. This has not happened yet, nor is expected in the near future. Simultaneously, more recycling markets are being developed in the U.S., but we’re not likely to see those up and running for a few years,” Hemenway said.
One of the biggest problems is much of what is sent to be recycled is not clean material and cannot be sold.
“Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District has the role of educating the public about keeping contamination out of recyclables in order to ensure the materials get recycled and not landfilled. Contaminating recycling can jeopardize an entire load of material. If people keep ‘wish cycling,’ meaning throwing (in) materials they hope are recyclable even if they aren’t, materials end up contaminated with things like Styrofoam, plastic bags, hoses, disposable coffee cups. Contamination is the killer of recycling,” Hemenway said.
“The most important thing people can do to curb this potential crisis is to reduce the amount of materials they use in the first place. Refrain from using disposables as much as possible, and learn what the mandated recyclables are in Vermont, and put those and only those in your recycling bin. If we applied the same principles to our current situation as Americans did to conserving materials during WW II, we could dramatically reduce our insane reliance on single-use disposable items that end up causing problems whether they get recycled or landfilled,” Hemenway said.