N.H. Municipalities Struggle to Keep Up With Rising Costs of Recycling

Apr 16, 2018

Municipalities across New Hampshire are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of recycling programs.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Laconia Public Works director Wes Anderson about how he’s working to reduce those costs in his city.


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

First, let's talk about what's happening in Laconia specifically. Costs are going up because the value of recycled goods are decreasing. Is that the issue?

That's correct. Prior to October of last year, our contract was a firm fixed price for recycling. When the contract expired, because the contractor had been dealing with the losses associated with the drop in value, the only ones who were betting on it were all requiring basically a formula that includes now what's the price on the value of the recyclables that we turn it.

So they want to pass on their losses to the city?

Correct. China being one of the big recycling processors recently said they don't want anything that's mixed paper, which is basically junk mail and scrap paper. It has too much contamination. They said they're not accepting it anymore. The other thing that they did is for their normal material that they still will accept, they reduced the acceptable contamination level from 3 percent down to 0.5 Percent. The other piece was the cost of transporting it overseas has gone up. And then the last piece of course is the only industry in the area that processed recycled glass back into bottles recently closed. So there isn't any place to send the recycled glass at this point.

So really just the market's just not there anymore?

Correct, especially for recycled glass.

Exactly how much has the cost of recycling increased in Laconia?

The simplest way to put it [is] we were paying zero for the cost of disposing of the recycling, and right now we're paying about $100 a ton.

Cities and towns all across the state I know have been struggling. Hooksett announced this month it's no longer going to collect glass because it's just too expensive. What problems have you encountered in Laconia specifically?

In our case, we're a single stream. That means we don't sort out the material. It's all put in one container and our trash collector picks it up and takes it to a sorting site. So what we've seen is the cost for the first month of it was $69 per ton for sorting, and processing and getting it to the recyclers. And it jumped up to the most recent month was $102. And we're looking at what can we do to reduce those costs to the city.

So what are some of those options that you're considering?

We actually have two separate recycling systems in the city. One is the curbside single stream where the truck goes around once every two weeks and picks up the recycling from the residence. And then we have what we call remote recycling, which is a really unattended location where anybody can bring any recycling. Some of the options that we're discussing with the City Council is do we get rid of the remote recycling because there is no control on it? It tends to have a higher contamination rate, which increases the cost of processing as well as people from out of town could be using it too. The other pieces we're looking at is not accepting glass anymore, and then it could be not accepting recycling anymore.

How would that work in the long run? You're talking about people then would just be putting everything in the trash?

Correct.

And how would that affect the city?

It's cheaper right now for our costs to send it to our disposal site. It converts trash into energy.

An incinerator?

Yes, but it's a waste to energy incinerator. It basically produces electricity off the operation of burning the trash.

Right. So where do you think this is leaning? Where do you think this is going as a trend here?

I don't know at this point. Part of it is it's a policy decision at the City Council level in regards to how much can they afford to pay for the recycling program versus increases in other programs. So that's something we're going to be working with the City Council over the next three months as we're going through the process to approve our budget for fiscal year 2019.

Is there anything that city residents specifically can do?

It's really follow the instructions on what we do accept. If they throw plastic bags in, basically it just makes the system much more complicated and really messes up the equipment that does the sorting, as well as it increases the contamination rate, which is causing the people who buy the recyclables not really wanting to pay for it anymore.

Is this because residents are mistaken thinking plastic bags are recyclable?

Plastic bags are recyclable. They're just not recyclable in a single stream type system. Most places what you see is you can take it back to like the shopping malls [or] the grocery stores. They have a separate container to accept recyclable plastic bags, and that goes through a whole separate process that doesn't get into the single stream system.