Global Disruption in Recycling Market Has Belmont Over The Trash Barrel

Photo: Recycling will be changing after a rewriting of the RFP.

Belmont Selectman Adam Dash was blunt when Jay Marcotte, director of the Department of Public Works, gave him and the other Selectmen the news at its Monday, Feb. 5 meeting of a proverbial dumpster fire of a dispute with the town’s trash hauler.

The town’s long-time collecter F W Russell & Sons Disposal recently issued a demand that the town either begin picking up the cost of taking away household recyclables – the cans, paper and all other stuff that has cost the town nothing in the past – or be threatened with “either disruption in service or litigation,” according to Belmont’s counsel Mina Makarious. 

While the town sent several messages noting its “displeasure” concerning the ultimatum by the company, the town has “tried to resolve this dispute at a reasonable cost,” said Makarious, noting the contract with Russell runs for only five more months. 

With the short time remaining on the current curbside agreement and without many alternatives before it, the board reluctantly voted to alter the existing contract and agreed to pay half the cost of the recycling collection up to $45 per ton. Marcotte told the Belmontonian the new change would cost his department about $24,000, funds the department had set aside for community education.

While the board approved the new language, Dash said the sudden demand from the hauler was unacceptable. “I’m not happy with this,” he said casting a symbolic “no” protest vote.

The demands by Russell are indicative in how Belmont and other communities around the US have suddenly found itself in the middle of a worldwide recycling surplus in which the value of mixed material has plummeted due to changes in packaging, low oil prices and a drop in paper fiber waste. A study by the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality found that the average market value of a ton of mixed recyclable material fell from $180 in 2011 to less than $80 by the end of 2015.

But the most dramatic shock to solid waste prices is coming from the demand end half a world away in China, which until recently imported half of the world’s waste paper, metals and used plastic totaling 7.3 million tons in 2016. According to an article in the New York Times, starting Jan. 1, China – in an attempt to stem pollution and environmental issues related to being since the 1990s the “world’s garbage dump” – has placed a ban on a wide range of waste, including unsorted paper and plastic bottles while setting new limits on the levels of impurities in other recyclables.

“It’s almost like they turned the spigot off overnight,” said Jim Fish, president of Waste Management, a Houston-based company that is the largest recycler of residential waste in North America, as reported in a November article in the Times. Where once recycling was a cash cow, today its dead weight.

The combined impact of supply and demand is being felt in Belmont with who are bidding on the town’s trash contract. At Monday’s meeting, Marcotte told the board that haulers and the material recycling facilities which process solid waste are finding their profits cut significantly or eliminated.

“The recycling market has completely flipped,” said Marcotte, told the board. “Once it was no cost [to the disposal companies], now its become a significant one.”

And those new realities are being felt in the rewarding of the town’s new trash collection contract.

When the selectmen OK’d the blueprint of the next five-year contract in September, it insisted on maintaining the town’s 1991 bylaw that committed the town to a “dual stream” recycling system which separated by paper and other recyclables such as plastic bottles and cans. While the town is moving to an automated trash collection system, homeowners would keep their blue and green bins to place paper in one and bottles and cans in another as a lasting pledge to recycling.

But the town’s nearly 30-year recycling program is being swept aside by cold hard economics. On Monday, the Selectmen changed the contract’s Request for Proposal to allow for a “single” stream recycling which all material – cans, bottles, glass, paper, packaging, paper bags – will be lumped into a single bin after the three companies which recently submitted proposals to become the town’s hauler would only accept a single stream recycling program. 

Marcotte said the new recycling collection regime [see the town release below] will be run biweekly with the recyclables either collected manually as they are now or by an automated system where residents will use their new 96-gallon recycling barrels – to be issued by the town in the next few months – for that week’s curbside recycling pickup. 

While acknowledging changes to long-standing town recycling policy is “regrettable,” Marcotte told the board the realities of the marketplace makes “a dual stream system no longer an option.” 

Town’s release on the new single stream recycling program

Because of the decreased values in the recycling markets, Material Recycling Facilities (MRF’s) are no longer accepting dual stream recycling.

What does this mean for Belmont?

Belmont will continue to RECYCLE…For the remaining five months, our hauler will continue to pick-up DUAL STREAM recycling at the curb. The change for Belmont is our recycling will be processed and charged as SINGLE STREAM.

In the next five months, there will be comprehensive community outreach and education on all the changes that will happen for TRASH AND RECYCLING.

This July 1st, the Town will be converting to AUTOMATED TRASH & SINGLE STREAM RECYCLING.

SINGLE STREAM RECYCLING will be collected every other week one of two ways:

  • Manual, using existing barrels/bins and placing all recyclables mixed.
  • Automated, using a Town issued 96-gallon container and placing all recyclables mixed.

This is an unfortunate situation that we are faced with and one in which we have no control. We apologize for this change and are working diligently to minimize disruption. If you have any questions, please call the Department of Public Works. 617-993-2680

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  1. Joan S. Young says

    Has anyone given a thought to the hardship this is going to be for seniors to try to lug out 96 salon barrels, particularly in the winter snow storms. And where in the world are we to store these massive containers?

  2. Jim Williams says

    We’re having a single agenda BOS meeting on Monday February 12th to discuss the impact of on our bid process of the change in the recycling market resulting from China’s withdrawal as a major purchaser of global recyclables. Analytically, we should expect economic actors in any market to participate by pursuing their own best interests and China’s most recent decision seems to be consistent with this principle. However, the sudden change is surprising to many advocates, yet China’s dominance on the buy side of the global recyclable market should have been a risk factor considered by all market observers. (i.e. what happens if China steps down?). In this regard, Belmont’s situation is less unfortunate than it is normal. In fact, we’re just fine. Arguably, the least intrusive option is to continue manual pickup in a single stream market in which paper and recyclables can be mixed curbside. This option is not a big problem or a very big change for residents curbside. Otherwise, the overall expense increase of having to pay for recyclable disposal is likely to be de minimus (i.e. < 2 percent of any total bid). Also, we can continue to collect cardboard seasonably and even monthly at the DPW yard which will serve to reduce our "recyclable" tonnage and therefore our expense in disposing of it. Importantly, any resident can also reduce their consumption of recyclables materials and products to reduce the tonnage as well. Best regards.

  3. F. Burbletree says

    “has placed a ban on a wide range of waste, including unsorted paper and plastic bottles while setting new limits on the levels of impurities in other recyclables.”

    Says the buyers want cleaner recyclables. So why is Belmont going in the opposite direction, from doal-stream (separate paper and plastic) to single-streem ?

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