Many N.H. Towns Struggle With Recycling Costs, But Not Derry

Jul 5, 2018

Cities and towns across the state are struggling to keep their recycling programs afloat with rising costs of disposing material. 

But there is one exception, and that's the town of Derry. 

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Mike Fowler, the director of the Public Works Department for the town.


(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Derry's recycling program has been relatively low cost when you compare it to other municipalities. What is your department doing differently?

I think it starts with the residents themselves. I think there's a basic understanding that what they're doing not only affects the environment, but it also helps the bottom line from a revenue standpoint. And one of the things that we hear when we're at our transfer station is tax rate.

Property tax rate is always a perennial topic in New Hampshire, and Derry is one of the towns that has a high tax rate overall, doesn't it?

Absolutely, and many communities have gone to a smaller situation where you go in and you have curbside collection where you have basically your trash and then a single stream, which is everything else. That is your cardboards, plastics, paper, glass is all thrown in a second bin and thrown into a truck and then processed elsewhere. What Derry has traditionally done is had source separation, and that was done by the residents. And what's important with that in 2018 is the fact that we have a very clean product. When you go to our transfer station, there's about nine or 10 bunkers for you to go right down the line, drop trash, cardboard, newspaper, tin cans, aluminum cans, glass. And what we do with that is the materials that we can sell, we will put them into bales, store them at our facility. And then we are large enough to market them directly to those that will purchase them, and it's been a very, very lucrative plan for us.

This is a more attractive product to people that you would be selling to, because as you said, it's cleaner you don't have all those comingled recyclables in there that would contaminate the plastics, or metals or things that would be worth something.

That is correct. And you know, it wasn't a factor let's say 10 years ago where basically you'd put together a bundle of paper or cardboard and send that out to market. But in the last six to 12 months, China has been imposing some new regulations, which has really made it a supply and demand issue.

They used to be a big buyer of the recycled material.

That is correct. And we've found that we've had a much better situation because we've been able to sell our clean cardboard, our clean paper. Whereas if you have a product that's in a single stream, it has to be processed and then it has to be approved for consumption.

And Derry in the last couple of years has undergone an upgrade. What has that upgrade done and how does it help you to keep costs down?

In 2015, we started construction, built a 20,000 square-foot facility, which was much more efficient than what we previously had. And by virtue of that, we're able to further separate some of the materials that we never used to be able to do before. I mean I think we have one of the most diverse products that we can bring to the transfer station.

But does the transfer station actually produce an income? Where does that income come from?

We have recycling revenues and we also have some fee based revenues. So recycling, we take in roughly $110,000 in the past 12-month period on metal. We also had $52,000 last year in cardboard revenues. Paper was about $11,000 last year. That market's been down and that gets back to that supply and demand. On the other side, on the fee base side, construction and demolition debris disposals were on pace to make about $360,000-$370,000 over the last 12 months.

Now is that something that not every transfer station would offer?

That is correct. Because of their size, they don't have enough bulk.

If the trend continues as some municipalities are saying where their recycling programs are costing them money, and they're not making any money from it. And many municipalities are saying look, we can't cover the cost of this anymore. What happens in the future? How do you keep up the changes that are going on right now?

Right now, Derry is still in a very favorable position. I wish things were more favorable, but you have to ride out the waves.

Does that come from the size of the municipality? Does that come from the upgrades that you've done over the years to keep up with the industry? Where does that come from?

I think it's a number of factors. We are fortunate because we are the fourth largest community in the state. We have enough marketing power, if you will. We can send out a truckload of cardboard bales and it takes us maybe a month. Whereas if it's a community that is population 1,200, they don't have a means to get rid of it.

The scale's not there?

Yeah, they don't have the economy of scale. I also believe that for, us in Derry, we have the ability to accept a number of different items. And I think with that we continue to encourage source separation, and then were able to market that better.