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Once a Source of Income for Towns, Recycling Paper Becomes a Costly Proposition


When it comes to recycling, all paper is not created equal. Some types of paper are more in demand by recyclers than others. In part, this is due to a recent policy shift by China.  And the local result is a change in the way many Cape Cod towns now recycle paper.  

This story is part 3 in our series, The Big Blue Bin: Following the Path of Cape Cod's Recycling.

Inside a busy warehouse at Mid City Scrap, in Westport, a transformation is taking place: an excavator pulls cardboard from a mountainous heap and drops it onto a conveyor belt, carrying it to a machine that compacts it, and then squeezes it out like a giant sausage. Then the whole package is wrapped in steel wire to keep it tightly bound.

“And that’s our orchestra,” says Chris Kessing, above the industrial din.

Kessing is a manager at Mid City Scrap, which sorts and bundles a lot of paper sent for recycling on Cape Cod.  From here, it’s shipped to paper mills in places like Canada and New York to be recycled into more paper stock.  

For paper recycling, Kessing says, it didn’t used to be this way.  “Just when we need paper mills,” he says, “they’re all gone.”

About two decades ago, all this paper would probably have been recycled in New England. Then China moved into the market, undercutting prices so much that local paper mills all closed down.  But in the last year-and-a-half, China changed its rules about what kinds of paper it will accept, effectively shutting out deliveries from places like Mid City Scrap.

“Twenty years later, just when we need capacity, just when we need paper mills, they’re all gone,” says Kessing. “I have more components of mills in my scrap heaps than are in this area.”

Now, Kessing says, even those mills in Canada and New York are having trouble keeping up with all the material being shipped to them.

All these changes means it’s become more important for paper to be sorted properly, before being sent for recycling. A stream of well-sorted paper saves money for a town.  Josh Pelletier is foreman at the Chatham Transfer Station, and he says getting the best deal for its used paper is important.

“Part of your job as foreman is to shop around,” he says. “You’re looking to get the best price for the town, to keep the money in the town. That’s what makes this place work”

Chatham, like many towns on the Outer Cape, has begun asking it residents to sort their  paper recycling.  Here at the Transfer station there are bins for the three main types: newspaper, cardboard, and what’s called “mixed paper” – which includes office paper, junk mail, telephone books, and everything else.

For towns like Chatham, there’s still a market for newspaper and cardboard – mills pay for it. But since the change in policy in China, mixed paper now costs money to get rid of. And the price per ton is on the rise.

“It’s been going up $5 every month,” Pelletier says. “I want to say last month we were at $50, the month before at $45. $55 a ton to get rid of mixed paper can be pretty costly for the town.”

Chatham trucks out close to 30 tons a month of mixed paper in the summer, and about 250 tons per year.  Once it was a source of income, now it’s become a substantial cost.

Having residents sort their recycled paper allows the town to make the most of its valuable newspaper and cardboard, while minimizing the costs of its mixed paper.

Paulette Fehling is on the town’s waste advisory board, and she helps educate people about the value of this new business of sorting paper into the three bins.

“I don’t know anyone in my experience that’s complaining about the decision,” syas Fehling. “They’re just having a hard time adjusting. Old habits die hard.”

To help, the town has been hosting forums trying to get residents to recycle better.

Back at Mid City Scrap in Westport, those bales of cardboard are being loaded for shipment to a mill that wants it. But Chris Kessing says the mixed paper bales are becoming more and more difficult to find a destination for. There’s too much of it for the mills to handle. 

“Their processing plant is full,” Kessing says. “Their storage warehouse is full, their parking lot is full, the parking lot across the street they rent out from the strip mall, that’s full. There is no leverage on my end to be able to say, ‘Hey, I got a load, what are you paying?’”

Kessing says the answer is to have more mills locally – the way it used to be. With them, he says, it would be less likely that the thousands of tons of the cereal boxes, fliers and other mixed paper will sit in a heap in a strip mall, waiting to be turned into something useful.