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Columbia County is accepting less for recycling in midst of weak market

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    A large compound of recycled materials inside Greene County Solid Waste Management in Catskill on Wednesday afternoon.
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    Recycled boxes piled up in a recycling bin at the Columbia County Solid Waste Department in Hudson on Wednesday afternoon.
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    Recycled boxes on a conveyor belt at Greene County Solid Waste Management in Catskill on Wednesday afternoon.
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    The Columbia County Solid Waste Department in Hudson.
August 17, 2018 11:32 pm

HUDSON — Columbia County will accept less for recycling as the county and its processing company attempt to keep recycling free in an increasingly tough market.

The Columbia County Solid Waste Department distributed a letter to town supervisors Aug. 10 notifying them that the department is in the process of implementing new recycling protocols, which will further limit what the department can accept for recycling.

Columbia County contracts with Casella Recycling to process its materials, and the new protocols are part of a new contract the county signed Aug. 1 with Casella. Columbia County pays Casella Recycling a monthly fee for material processing that’s subsidized once the materials are sold.

“The new protocols are about the same as they were before,” Columbia County Solid Waste Director Jolene Race said. “We are trying to clean up the stream as much as possible to make the materials more marketable both domestically and internationally.”

Columbia County switched to single-stream collection — using one bin for multiple recyclables — about five years ago. Single-stream collection can cause recycled materials to be less profitable because it is prone to contaminate the material.

To reduce the chance of contamination, Casella is not accepting items with plastic coating or wax-coated paper.

The new protocols are a response to the recent strain in the recycling market after China, one of the biggest buyers in the market for recycled materials, restricted recycled-material imports as China seeks to process more of its own materials.

On Jan. 1, 2018, China banned recycled plastic and paper imports and tightened standards for accepted materials, after announcing last year that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.”

Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material each year, exporting about one-third of that material. Columbia County collects about 2,600 tons of paper, plastic and glass a year. Greene County collects roughly 3,000 tons of recyclable material a year.

While most recycled material exports once went to China, U.S. scrap exports to China fell by about 35 percent in the first two months of 2018, after the ban was implemented.

This has had a ripple effect on some recycling markets across the U.S., including stifling revenues for Greene County and Columbia County waste facilities.

The Columbia County Solid Waste Department budgeted around $70,000 to handle recyclables for this year and by July the county had spent all that money. That does not mean the department’s recycling will close down, Race said.

The monthly cost for having Casella process recyclables has skyrocketed from $6,000 to $14,000 in the last six months because of a lack of markets and increased processing costs.

Race is budgeting $250,000 in recycling costs for next year, but it is still early in the county’s budget process.

“This is not just Columbia County and it isn’t just in New York, it is all over the U.S.,” Race said. “Everybody is starting to charge for recycling.”

Columbia County has provided free recycling since it started its program, and the county will not plan to change that until after an Aug. 29 stakeholders meeting of local governments, recycling businesses and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Race said.

Greene County Solid Waste handles recycling a different way, processing and sorting its own collections through a source-separation system, instead of a single-stream system, to ensure integrity of the material for better prices.

“We are watching the market closely,” Greene County Highway and Solid Waste Superintendent Robert Van Valkenburg said. “The price for recycled materials has gone down substantially because there is a glut of materials in the market, but people are not accepting as much.”

The price for cardboard is $50 a ton, Van Valkenburg said, plunging from $115 per ton in February to $95 in April. Recycled newspaper brought in $15 per ton before January but dropped to $4 per ton in March and then to $2.50 per ton in May.

“Over the last six months the price has dropped rapidly,” Van Valkenburg said. “It has to do with the market and standards and China’s decision.”

Greene County budgeted about $115,000 in revenues from recycling, but Van Valkenburg said he is budgeting $30,000 less in revenue for the coming year.