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Towns Struggle with Costs as 'Corona-Recycling' Increases by 20%

Eve Zuckoff
A pile of single-stream recycling grows at the Bourne Integrated Solid Waste Management Facility.

At the Bourne Integrated Solid Waste Management Facility, everything has its own smell. 

“You get the gas smell, old trash smell, new trash smell, recycling smell,” said Dan Barrett, general manager of the facility. “There's a lot of different smells, and if you've been around long enough, you'll know the difference.” 

After driving his truck past mounds of compost and piles of old bikes and beach chairs, he pulled into a warehouse where “recycling smell” assailed the nose.

“This is our single-stream transfer station. This was actually supposed to be a maintenance garage,” he said. “But as time went on, the importance of recycling overtook the need for a new maintenance garage.” 

Now, the site is dominated by a mountain of household recycling, partly because people are spending so much time at home. More packages are being ordered, more attics are being cleaned, and more yards are being trimmed. The proof of pandemic spending—and pandemic boredom—shows up here.

“Obviously, you see a mix. You see some plastic in there, that old wash bucket there,” he said, looking at the pile. “Everybody's ordering stuff…  and that's probably why you're seeing a lot more cardboard in this stuff than you would normally see.”  

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, there’s been a 20 percent increase in recycling across the Cape region. While the bump may seem like a good thing—an opportunity for town revenue and a demonstration of eco-friendly values—it’s presenting new challenges for towns and transfer stations that need to manage and pay for the recycling in new ways.

“So I heard the best terminology the other day from the foreman in Wellfleet. He called it 'corona-recycling,'” said Kari Parcel, a recycling and solid waste expert with the state Department of Environmental Protection and Barnstable County's Cape Cod Cooperative Extension.

“By corona-recycling,” she continued, “he meant having to change the way recyclables were collected, hauled and tipped to maintain safety for not only his employees, but for the general public.”

To manage the higher volume of waste and fears about transmitting disease, early in the pandemic transfer stations had to cancel residential drop-off services for yard waste, composting, car batteries, and more. 

Now, most of these services are open again, but municipal recycling programs are still struggling for reasons that precede the coronavirus—reasons that include changes in the global market for recycled materials. The result is that for several years now recycling hasn’t been a money-maker. In fact, it's been costly for towns to run their programs. 

“Well, the town has offered free recycling to all residents for a number of years … and that basically began when recycling had value,” said Dan Santos, director of public works in Barnstable. Facing rising costs, Santos said, he had to make hard decisions.  

“But in the last four or five years, the recycling market has changed dramatically over what it had been for many years to the point where most recyclables actually cost money to get rid of.” 

So this summer Barnstable, like many other towns, has eliminated its free recycling program. Now for residents to get rid of their old newspapers, glass bottles, and tin cans, they have to buy an annual sticker for $250, or pay for every visit to the transfer station.

“Things aren't free anymore,” Santos explained. “We were subsidizing this with our cash reserves. You can only do that so long till you run out of money.”

So at what point does the recycling sticker become too expensive? 


Household budgets are tight, and a commitment to the environment can be costly.

It’s a big question, but for now, the dedication to recycling locally remains a source of pride for people like Dan Barrett. Surrounded by the smell he loves, he stood hands-on-hips, in front of a mountain of discarded cardboard and other recyclable treasures. He smiled. “I would call this pile pretty darn good.” 


Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.