Recycling Expense Catching Up To Western Mass. Communities

Jan 14, 2020

Updated 11:05 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2020.    

China stopped accepting large quantities of paper and plastic from the United States two years ago because a lot of it was contaminated. This means recyclables are worth far less. 

Instead of getting rid of recyclables for free, or even getting paid for them, many cities and towns across western Massachusetts are now facing an unexpected expense.

Boston Globe environment reporter David Abel has been covering this story. He joins us to talk about just how big the bills could be for these communities.

David Abel, Boston GlobeFor many communities, it will increase from paying nothing to as much as $150 on average over a several-year contract per ton — which for many communities is a huge sum, when they often have to scrounge to find enough funding every budget season for their typical costs.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: How are communities coping with this increase?

Some better than others. Some are looking for other options at the moment. Communities such as Springfield and Westfield and Holyoke...are looking to go with different options if possible, such as finding new private contractors who could take their recycling at a lower rate than what is being sought by the Department of Environmental Protection's recycling facility in Springfield.

If Springfield and Holyoke, let's say, go ahead and find other options, what could this do to the cost for the other communities?

The costs that have been estimated and sent out in contractual language to each of these communities is dependent on most of the larger communities signing up. If Springfield and Holyoke and Westfield...don't sign on, the costs are likely to increase for everyone else beyond $150 a ton for single-stream recycling communities, which are the majority of them.

And what are the options that places like Springfield and Holyoke are examining instead of using that state-owned plant?

Well, given that their costs are going to be surging, they are looking at all kinds of different things. Again, they are considering using other contractors who might be offering different terms and a lower cost.

They are also talking about options that were considered unthinkable in the past, such as giving up curbside recycling in some cases, or building their own recycling facilities in their town so that they can handle the recycling themselves — which would be a huge sum for some of the smaller communities if they were actually to be able to do that.

Does it look like the state's going to be able to provide any help here for these communities?

The state has been providing some help over the last year. The state has provided in the area of $7 million of various kinds of support for many communities. But the state has said that given the dramatic rise in the cost of recycling, they can't lower the costs that this Springfield facility is going to charge each of these 74 communities, that up until now, have used that plant to send their recycling materials to.

Is there any hope that the international market for recyclables is going to bounce back?

Well, right now, because of policies primarily in Asia, where for years we've sent our recyclables — because of those new policies, and their desire to reduce the amount of contaminated material that we sent to them — which actually often ended up either being incinerated in places like China or India, or sent to landfills there, rather than actually being converted into usable commodities — that implosion of the market has meant a dramatic loss in the value of the products that were made from the recyclable materials.

There is some hope I've heard that the market might be shifting to a domestic production of commodities from these recycling materials. We are now learning about new plants that are being built or planned around the country, including one in Maine.

Correction: In an earlier version of this interview, Abel called Springfield, Holyoke and Westfield "the largest communities in western Massachusetts." They are among the largest cities, but Chicopee and Pittsfield both have larger populations than Westfield.