Recycling goes from profitable to costly

As China slams the door on many recycled materials imported from the U.S., some Connecticut towns that used to turn a profit on their recyclables are now going to have pay hefty costs to get rid of them.

In June, trash company Winter Bros. told Naugatuck it would not extend its recycling contract with the borough for another year, said Sandra Lucas-Riberio, Naugatuck’s recycling coordinator.

Winter Bros. had paid Naugatuck $16 per ton. Now, it’s asking Naugatuck to pay $55 per ton.

After looking at its options, the Naugatuck Board of Mayor and Burgesses last week agreed to send recyclables to the Connecticut Materials Innovation & Recycling Authority, a quasi-public waste agency. Naugatuck will pay MIRA $23 per ton of recycling.

According to Thomas Gaffey, director of recycling for MIRA, it is able to do this because Naugatuck has a contract in place to send its household garbage to MIRA.

Naugatuck Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said the borough exhausted every possibility before deciding to move forward with MIRA.

“This is what I would call bad news, but it is the best we can do right now,” Hess said.

Even though the borough is no longer receiving money for its recycling, Naugatuck Public Works Director James Stewart said recycling still saves money because the borough pays $70 a ton for trash.

MIRA provides trash and recycling services to about half of Connecticut. It’s current contract with a recyclables distribution firm will last another three years. Gaffey said he negotiated lean profits five years ago in exchange for insulation against a market downswing.

That tactic is paying off now, but MIRA will find itself with the same challenge in three years if conditions don’t change.

“Nobody saw National Sword coming, but we were always wary that if something went bust with the recycling market, we wanted to be protected,” Gaffey said.

National Sword is China’s policy adopted in July 2017 that is turning away most of the plastics it used to import, as well as recyclable materials contaminated by nonrecyclable materials. If more than one-half of 1 percent of any ton of recyclable material is contaminated, Chinese authorities will refuse entry for the shipment. Last year, the standard had been 5 percent contaminated.

China started enforcing the far more stringent policy early this year, cutting off a market that used to process millions of tons of U.S. recyclable materials annually.

It’s part of an environmental push by Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Steve Changaris, Connecticut director for the National Waste & Recycling Association. After 40 years of rapid industrialization, Chinese authorities are paying attention to pollution and don’t want to import others’ garbage, Changaris said.

“The bottom line is he picked up on this ‘don’t dump on China mentality,’” Changaris said. “They turned a blind eye to modernize and industrialize. They created a lot of pollution. Xi is shutting that down. We all should have seen it coming.”

The loss of Chinese markets for recyclables has led to a glut in the market, low prices or utter lack of demand.

Bill Adulite, an operations manager with Winter Bros., said the company is having to pay to give away some material that used to be profitable.

Because they have contracts in place, Beacon Falls and Prospect are faring better than other municipalities at the moment.

Beacon Falls, which uses Winter Bros. to pick up both its trash and recycling, budgeted $253,000 for trash collection and $49,000 for recycling collection this fiscal year.

Beacon Falls First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the town receives some money back from Winter Bros. for the recycling, which offsets the hauling fees. The town entered into a three-year contract last year, he said. Bielik said he hadn’t heard anything from Winter Bros. about the contract being changed.

Prospect has a contract with Bristol Resource Recovery and Tunxis Recycling Operating that runs through the end of the fiscal year, and doesn’t receive money or pay for recycling, Prospect Mayor Robert Chatfield said.

“I’m hoping that they will honor the contract for the rest of the year. Right now we are in a wait-and-see pattern,” Chatfield said.

Chatfield said the town has belonged to the Bristol Resource Recovery since it opened in 1988. The town pays $63 a ton to dispose of its solid waste.

The shifting recycling landscape doesn’t come as a surprise to Chatfield.

“I have been informing the Town Council since before budget season this might happen because Asian countries are becoming flooded with recyclables,” Chatfield said.

Rapid economic growth in China over the past 10 to 15 years had created a hungry market for raw materials, said Marian Chertow, an associate professor of industrial environmental management with Yale University. U.S. companies realized they could get good prices on their material and relatively cheap freight. Container ships dropping Chinese goods off to American ports were refilled with recyclables for the return trip.

Over time, the Chinese were finding more and more contamination, Chertow said. American recycling programs were rapidly switching to “single-stream” programs, where everything goes in one bin rather than being sorted. This resulted in higher contamination rates.

At the same time, Chinese incomes were rising, giving rise to a consumer class that created its own waste stream, Chertow noted.

“The commodity markets have been lower,” Chertow said. “Now the market is glutted with stuff that can no longer go to China, so prices drop even more and the vendors have to get their money from somewhere. So, now they are asking for it in the tip fee.”

Chertow doesn’t see China reversing course on its more stringent rules. This is a chance for the United States to innovate, find ways to reduce contamination of its recycling stream and create new markets, she said. This change won’t be cheap, but it is necessary, she said.

“Transition costs are going to be very high for Connecticut and most other states,” Chertow said. “We are going from a regime that was dying away and people didn’t realize it. And now we don’t have a new regime to replace it.”

Luke Marshall contributed to this article.