As the cost to recycle climbs, some communities are throwing the program — and reusable materials — out with the trash.
But that isn't happening in the Berkshires or the rest of Massachusetts, state officials said. Local recyclables are often processed by the Material Recycling Facility in Springfield, the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste District in Adams and TAM Waste Management in Shaftsbury, Vt.
The New York Times recently reported that due to the declining value of American scrap on the international market, lower recycling reimbursements have led communities such as Philadelphia to burn half of its 1.5 million residents' recycling materials. In the Memphis international airport the recycling bins around the terminals are dumped in the same landfill at the end of the day, the paper reported.
Locally, communities are feeling the pinch.
"Right now, in many cases, it costs more to process recyclables than to throw it into the garbage stream," said Windsor Select Board member Douglas McNally. "The economy of the whole thing is out of whack."
Communities that have earned money from their recycling programs — $12 to $70 per ton depending on the material, according to a comparative report by the Connecticut Legislature — might now have pay to get the reusables hauled away.
But Greg Cooper, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Business Compliance and Recycling Division, said people in Massachusetts aren't abandoning the reduce-reuse-recycle philosophy.
"That hasn't happened here. Communities in Massachusetts are very committed to their recycling programs," Cooper said. "In Massachusetts all of the items that are being collected are being recycled. We've had conversations with the processors in the state and they are processing the materials coming into their operations, albeit at a lower price."
The cost of recycling for municipalities is increasing, area and state officials said, due to an international decline in the purchase of reusable American scrap. After receiving too much unusable material, China has put stricter regulations on the quality of scrap the nation will buy. The U.S. needs to make sure less trash destined for landfills winds up in the recycling sold to China. To meet that standard, recycling centers and programs are making adjustments to their processes and attempting to better educate clients about reusables.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has launched several recycling grant programs to improve municipal recycling and help communities make it through the market shift, such as Sustainable Materials Recovery Program grants and Recycling IQ education kits.
More than half of the towns in the Berkshires received state Sustainable Materials Recovery Program grants last summer to improve community recycling efforts. The towns were: Adams, Cheshire, Clarksburg, Egremont, Hancock, Hinsdale, Lanesborough, Lee, Lenox, Mount Washington, New Ashford, North Adams, Peru, Pittsfield, Sandisfield, Sheffield, Williamstown and Windsor.
Individual awards ranged from $500 to $8,800 in North Adams.
"The biggest challenge right now is, of course, the drop in the reimbursement for recyclable materials because of the China collapse — it's stressing the finances of the whole thing, but we have a willing community doing the best we can," said McNally, whose town won a $3,150 SMRP grant. "People have a good recycling ethos here."
Linda Cernik, program coordinator for Northern Berkshire Solid Waste Management District, said the company isn't making any drastic changes to how it processes recycling in response to the international market. Northern Berkshire already requires "dual-stream" recycling, she said, which means paper and plastics are separated by clients. This method reduces the risk of contamination over a "single stream" program where all recyclables are put into the same bin for disposal.
Though economic circumstances have changed, the recycling processor has not attempted to alter its contract with its 13 Northern Berkshire County member communities. The contract expires in June 2020 and will be renegotiated then.
"There's a lot on the horizon that could change what the prices are going to be in 2020. I hope there's a market for it," Cernik said. "All of our towns do a great job with recycling and keeping in compliance."
McNally said Windsor encourages recycling by charging residents per bag of trash disposed at the transfer station and have a community swap shop where people can drop off and take gently used items for free. Still, even dedicated recyclers could use some education.
"Contamination in paper is a big issue," he said. "People throw away a pizza box with all kinds of grease and cheese on it and it's too much — it makes the whole batch no good."
The Select Board member said he is hopeful the depressed scrap value won't hang around for too long.
"I hope it's very short-term," he said. "It hurts because it means that whereas we used to not have to pay much to get the stuff picked up because Northern Berkshire [Solid Waste Management District] were getting enough reimbursement from paper, metal and glass, so the cost to us was small."
Kristin Palpini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.