Chatham Caught Up In Global Recycling Market Glitch

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Recycling and Solid Waste

A sign at the transfer station warns that single-stream recyclables will no longer be accepted. The prohibition applies only to commercial waste haulers, not individual residents, who must separate recyclables. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – A sign at the transfer station warning that single-stream recycling will no longer be accepted as of Jan. 31 has led to confusion among residents about the status of the town's recycling program.

The ban only applies to waste haulers who bring in large loads of mixed recycling, and is the result of market trends that reach across the country and around the globe. Officials stress that there's been no change to the way individual residents dispose of recyclables at the Sam Ryder Road facility.

Local waste haulers have traditionally co-mingled recyclables, picking up all-in-one recycling bins from customers' homes and bringing these mixed items to the transfer station, where they are then hauled away by recyclers. Recycling receptacles downtown and at beaches that are maintained and picked up by the town also co-mingle recyclables.

However, the town is now paying almost as much to get rid of a ton of co-mingled recyclables as it does to dispose of solid waste. Department of Public Works Director Tom Temple said two years ago single-stream recyclables cost $32 per ton to haul away; it now costs $62 per ton. Sending trash to Covanta in Rochester costs $64 per ton.

The single-stream recyclables can't be mixed in with trash, Temple said; that's prohibited by the department of environmental protection and the town can end up paying higher rates or penalties if recyclables are mixed in with trash.

“It's not just the town of Chatham,” Temple said. “It's a bigger thing.”

Recyclers have become more strict about accepting single-stream material, and one of the main causes is a glut in recycled material worldwide. China, which for years accepted much of the country's recyclables, is seeking to ban some material because of the level of non-recyclable waste that was mixed in with recyclables, according to a story in the latest issue of American Recycler. Because of this, more recyclable material is staying here, and there's no place for it.

“It's a global market thing right now,” said Tim Milley of Milley Trucking, one of two Chatham waste haulers impacted by the prohibition on single-stream recyclables. He said even if his customers separated recyclables, collecting them would increase costs and there would be nowhere to put it at the transfer station.

Ben Nickerson of Benjamin T. Nickerson, Inc., said the nearest place accepting single-stream recycling is in Bourne and it's not practical to drive the material there.

“The whole state's in a jam” over the issue, he said.

Right now both Milley and Nickerson are stockpiling recyclables in the hope that the situation will be resolved sooner rather than later.

“Luckily it's the middle of winter,” said Nickerson. Milley said he's seen similar situation before, and in the end operations end up raising prices and everything begins to flow again. He stressed that he's still taking recyclables and he wouldn't want his customers to break a habit that is ultimately beneficial for everyone.

Temple said haulers haven't had rates increased in a while, and that may be the way to solve this problem. The town will likely also have to change the way it collects recyclables, installing separate containers so the material does not have to be sorted later. “We don't have the manpower,” he said.

He called on the state department of environmental protection to intercede to help towns deal with the situation.

“We just have to think outside of the box and find a way to make it work,” Temple said, adding that he hoped the situation will be resolved soon.

Engineers are also looking are redesigning the recycling area to make it easier to use and more efficient, he said. “It's just not user friendly, and some of those things have to change,” he said. Options will be brought to the board of selectmen and changes will be phased in to minimize cost, he said.