AUBURN — Recycling suffered setbacks in 2019, but the future looks brighter, a local expert says.
This year, haulers raised their prices for curbside recycling in northeast Indiana. One local community, Fremont, canceled the service due to the cost.
However, the Brightmark Energy plant now under construction at Ashley seems poised to change the outlook for plastics recycling.
“The doom and gloom that it’s all going away is hogwash,” Steve Christman said about recycling. For 28 years, Christman has served as executive director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District, based east of Ashley.
Right now, recycling is going through what Christman describes as a market adjustment.
“The whole process was impacted back in late 2017, early 2018, when China put much more stringent contamination percentages on secondary materials,” Christman said.
Once the largest purchaser of U.S. plastics, China began rejecting nearly all plastic waste except for the highest-quality shipments.
Many U.S. recyclers now are finding their plastics can’t be sold, and hundreds of local recycling programs across the nation have collapsed, according to an article published this month on statista.com.
Haulers in northeast Indiana responded by raising monthly rates for curbside recycling. Auburn recently agreed to a new contract with its hauler, Republic Services, that includes an extra recycling charge of 77 cents per home. Combined with an annual inflation increase, it takes residents’ bills from $11.42 to $12.59 per month for trash and recycling service combined.
Jim Smith of Republic Services told Auburn officials the value of recycled materials his company sells has fallen more than 50%, largely due to China’s rejection of U.S. recycled materials.
At the time, Smith warned about a price increase for recycling that now has arrived for 2020.
The cutback in recycling resale prices especially affects plastics and mixed paper, Smith said. Prices for aluminum, metals, and cardboard were remaining solid.
“This recycling market is kind of going upside-down, and it’s been a problem,” Smith said at an Auburn council meeting in November.
In Waterloo, Republic proposed a monthly rate increase of $2.80 in next year’s combined rate for trash and recycling.
Waterloo’s officials balked and switched to Washler Inc. for a monthly rate of $15.65 per home — 52 cents cheaper than Republic proposed for 2020, but still more than the $13.37 Waterloo residents paid Republic for most of this year. Washler‘s price also features an upgrade to one curbside collection of oversize items each year.
Washler’s overall rate includes $5.04 per month for recycling collection every other week.
In Fremont, the town council canceled recycling service by Republic and opted for trash collection only — saying it saves approximately $3 per month.
“Recycling is not free, it never has been free. There’s a cost to it, and that will continue to be the case,” Christman said.
“For years and years, it was built in, people never saw it,” Christman said about the recycling portion of trash-and-recycling collection rates.
Christman said household rates for trash-only collection in northeast average $12-$15 per month. Biweekly recycling collection now stands at $4-$6 per month.
“That’s incredibly economical if you look at everything that goes into it,” Christman said.
Recycling collection costs haulers about $80 per ton, while the cost of landfilling trash runs at around $40 per ton, he said.
“If you look at the true, long-term cost of landfilling, however, I expect it would be much more expensive,” Christman said.
Smith said recyclers are battling the problem that 30% of materials placed in recycling bins actually is trash, which must be separated at a processing plant and hauled to a landfill.
Most area haulers now use “single stream” recycling, which makes it easier for residents to recycle, because they don’t have to sort materials. However, the lack of sorting has contributed to contamination.
“The biggest challenge for those of us who do recycle is to put it in clean,” Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder said recently in response to higher rates.
“Empty, clean and dry” are the key words for recycled materials, Smith told Auburn officials.
The Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District spends at least $30,000 a year cleaning up trash left at its 17 drop-off recycling sites, Christman said.
“Folks just don’t care, and they want to get rid of it, so they take advantage of an unmanned site,” he said.
Drop-off sites are designed chiefly to serve area residents who do not have curbside collection available.
Smith has credited Auburn residents for a “nice job” of recycling in their curbside program. City residents recycled 702 tons of material in 2018, surpassing their record of 671 tons set in 2017.
Recycling accounted for 13.31% of total waste discarded by Auburn customers in 2018, barely beating the previous record set in 2014.
On average, Auburn households recycled 9.35 pounds of material during each biweekly pickup in 2018. In comparison, Auburn homes discarded 30.53 pounds of trash every week.
Across the northeast Indiana region, 12-15% of waste is being recycled, Christman said.
Local recycling lags behind the statewide rate of 20% for 2018, which improved from 16.8% in 2017, according to a report by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Combining industry and households, Indiana recycled 1.28 million tons of waste and composted nearly 450,000 tons in 2018. That compares to more than 6 million tons that went to landfills.
Paper and cardboard accounted for 44% of Indiana’s recycled materials, and glass made up 16%, the state report said.
With their lighter-weight, plastics account for only 3% of statewide recycling tonnage, although plastics also make up part of the “single-stream mixed” category that accounts for 10% of Indiana recycling.
The outlook for plastics recycling in northeast Indiana is very favorable, thanks to the coming of Brightmark Energy, Christman said. Brightmark will convert plastic waste to fuel products and waxes, and it is expected to consume plastics from a wide area.
“They will process a lot of plastics that historically have been landfilled,” Christman said about Brightmark. As one example, the company has expressed an appetite for the plastic shrink wrap used to protect boats during winter storage at northeast Indiana’s marinas.
“I think, frankly, the market will come back” for plastics, Smith predicted at the Auburn council meeting in November. In the aftermath of China’s ban on most plastics, he said, “We’re going to start handling it ourselves within the United States.”