GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Roughly one in six loads of single-stream recycling delivered to Kent County facilities is contaminated by trash, and what’s unsullied is worth less on the resale market. As a result, customers soon may pay more for curbside recycling.
Kent County in January will start charging haulers $10 a ton for deliveries to its recycling center on Wealthy Street SW in Grand Rapids — boosting revenues by an estimated $350,000. The new cost likely will get passed along to customers.
“Businesses can’t keep absorbing costs and keep sustainable,” said John Van Tholen, president of Green Valley Recycling & Disposal Service and secretary/treasurer of the Michigan Waste & Recycling Association.
“I think there’s going to be a relatively small impact, relatively being the key term. Is 50 cents or 75 cents more too much for people to recycle? I guess we’ll find out.”
Commodity values for recycled materials are down in part due to lower oil prices and lower demand in China, prompting the CEO of Waste Management to call it a“nationwide crisis,” in a Washington Post report. What it means for Kent County is that the public’s recycling program is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
The county for years has allowed haulers to drop off recyclables for free, and last year accepted 32,000 tons.
“Recycling is the right thing to do, but let’s not call it free because it’s not,” said Dar Baas, the county’s public works director. “The goal here is to say it does cost something to process this material.”
It costs the county money to process recyclables, as well as trash that customers dump into recycling bins. Last year more than 4,000 tons of the recyclables delivered to county facilities were contaminated by trash. That’s 14 percent of the load, and it’s costing the county about $100,000 to dump it.
Some of the contamination stems from a built-in incentive for customers: it’s cheaper to put stuff into the recycling bin than into the trash bin. In Grand Rapids, for example, customers pay nothing for curbside recycling, which is subsidized by a property tax.
“You can’t put yard waste, you can’t put diapers, you can’t put dog feces in your recycling container. It’s not recyclable,” said James Hurt, public services director for the city.
“People will try to hide their contamination, put a couple pieces of cardboard on top. If we do find contamination, we inform the resident. If we find it again, we will remove their cart.”
Grand Rapids delivers about 10,000 tons of recycling to the county, Hurt said. The new recycling fee will add about $10,000 in annual cost. The city plans to absorb that new cost without charging customers for recycling, Hurt said.
The county plans to work harder with the city and private haulers on educating the public about what can be recycled and what can’t be recycled, Baas said. And now that haulers will have some “skin in the game,” the county also is planning to explore a revenue sharing program that offers haulers a payback when recyclable commodities bring a profit, he said.
In Holland, for example, the city’s contract with a private hauler includes a rebate based on the revenue generated from recyclables.
“When times are good we ought to find a way to pay back, too,” Baas said. “If we can reduce the trash (by increasing recycling) and we can reduce our cost, that’s a benefit and that will be a payback to the haulers who use the facility.”
For a list of recyclable materials, click here.