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Recycling's Hidden Costs

Cape Codders have been recycling more paper, metal and plastic than ever before, thanks to programs that make it easier to choose the blue bin over the trash can. But, with higher recycling rates come hidden costs that can flow back to residents in the form of increased fees or taxes.

In the second installment of series, “Our Waste Goes Where? A Look at Our Region’s Trash Troubles,” we learn how two Cape towns approach recycling, and follow some of our region’s recyclables to a facility that prepares them for a trip overseas. 

Chris Roderick is at work most days well before many of his neighbors have even had their first cup of coffee. Each morning as dawn breaks, he guides his truck down Provincetown’s narrow streets and makes things disappear.

Roderick has been picking up Provincetown’s trash and recycling for years. He’s seen the shift to more recycling. But while most people seem to know what’s allowed, there’s always some surprises.

“I would say probably a pair of handlebars. Handlebars like with the fork—I don’t know what they were thinking” he said. “Even the chicken wire. That was the other day, I couldn’t believe it. It was a good-sized roll, too.”

Provincetown is one of three Cape towns that offers curbside pickup and single stream recycling. DPW director Richard Waldo said they began single stream in 2012 to increase rates and it’s working—recycling is up almost 10 percent. He said people like the convenience. 

“Before we would sort everything out,” Waldo said. “Cardboard would go in one box, plastic would go in another, glass would go in another, and we didn’t actually materialize enough stuff.”

But putting everything in one bin comes at a cost. Provincetown sends its recycling to a sorting facility, which then sells those products to countries like China and India. But the market for plastics, metal and glass can be unpredictable, making it tough to rely on as a revenue generator.

“In the beginning we were actually receiving money from [recyclables],” he said. “And the commodities index has changed so much, and the recyclables have changed so much, that we actually pay to get rid of the recyclables now.”

And, as more people recycle, processors will likely spend even more to sort it. Those costs can also be passed back to towns and cities, and eventually taxpayers.

Provincetown controls some of these costs by charging private haulers and local businesses that use the transfer station. That revenue covers about half of the town’s single stream program. Taxpayers make up the other half. Waldo said single stream is worth it for Provincetown though, because it curbs problems like illegal dumping. And, he said it’s still cheaper than throwing it all in the landfill.

“If it’s a small savings, it’s a savings,” he said.

On the other end of the Cape, Sandwich encourages recycling by charging a fee for each bag of trash residents bring to the transfer station. It’s called Pay-As-You-Throw, and it’s also prompting people to recycle more. 

Sandwich was the first Cape town to try Pay-As-You-Throw, in response to rising trash fees at SEAMASSCovanta in Rochester, a waste-to-energy facility that takes much of the Cape’s trash. 

Sandwich Town Manager Bud Dunham says they’ve saved more than half a million dollars and cut their trash rate in half since starting the program in 2012. But change didn’t come easy. Residents did not like having to buy specially-marked trash bags.

“If you saw some of the venomous comments that were coming from the public, it would have been easy to say, ‘It’s just not worth it,” he said.

But the program worked. Unlike in Provincetown, the Sandwich transfer station is no longer subsidized by taxpayers—it’s 100 percent funded by dump stickers and bag sales. 

Credit Kathryn Eident
Sandwich residents sort their recycling into specially-marked contractors at the town transfer station.

Sandwich also tries to make money by avoiding the processing facilities and dealing directly with the companies that buy recyclables on the market. It can be tricky, though. 

Sandwich DPW Director Paul Tilton said the market is in flux. He personally watches the commodities market, and decides when to sell recyclables like glass, cardboard and metal, and who to sell them to. 

“Metal used to be $220 a ton,” he said. “That dropped as low as $20 per ton this last year. It’s on the rise back up—hopefully it will continue.”

Tilton said fuel prices affect the market. China also has started rejecting loads it considers contaminated.

Contamination is the key here. It’s the word recycling processors use for non-recyclable items that find their way into the blue bins. These things can break machinery, slow down the sorting process, and ultimately drive up costs.

At the EL Harvey Materials Recovery Facility in Westborough, it’s probably some kind of contamination that’s jammed up the sorter the day I visit. Something that shouldn’t be there is stuck in the machine.

Company President BJ Harvey said they’ve invested millions in this complex system of conveyor belts, chutes, bins, platforms—and humans. He said they have more than two dozen workers stationed along the conveyor system hand-picking contamination out of the recyclables.

Credit Kathryn Eident
El Harvey President, BJ Harvey, explains how his Westborough, Mass. Materials Recovery Facility processes recyclables.

Harvey said contamination is unavoidable. With pay as you throw, some residents sneak in trash. With single stream, it creeps in from what experts call “wishful recyclers” –people who aren’t sure if something is recyclable, but hope someone else will sort it out later.

But the biggest contaminant comes as a surprise—it’s glass.

Glass is still a valuable commodity when it’s handled separately. But it has practically zero value when its mixed with trash. Harvey said some towns now ban glass from single-stream recycling.

“So all these things add up to the price of getting rid of a ton of single stream has crept up,” he said. “Then you throw the transportation of getting something off the Cape, and it creeps up there.”

Rising costs mean communities need to juggle the desire to increase recycling rates with educating residents about how to recycle right.

Barnstable County Regional Waste Reduction Coordinator Dave Quinn said ultimately, recycling is just one thing people can do. 

“Reducing your waste is the best thing you could possibly do,” he said. “And if you can’t reduce it, try to reuse it, then recycle. So it’s really the third best option, just above throwing it away”

Quinn said residents need to start thinking of trash and recycling the way they think of other utilities: You pay for what you use, or in this case, produce. But the good news, he says, is that even though recycling costs are on the rise, it’s still cheaper—and greener—than trash, at least for now.