Recycling still wisest course of action for county

Published: 2/9/2019 4:09:50 PM

The towns in our region have always been in the vanguard of the environmental movement, which these days is expressed in terms of being green and sustainable. Most of our communities have for years been pre-sorting trash, separating the plastic, glass, paper and metals from less reusable refuse – and in most cases saving money in the process by selling the recyclables. Profiting from recycling makes it easy.

But the crash that occurred a year ago in the global market for recyclable materials may be about to hit Western Massachusetts, forcing towns to pay to get rid of their plastics, glass, cans and paper – for the first time in years.

Communities that have been protected from a 2018 Chinese ban on what had been 40,000 shipping containers of U.S. recyclables a day are facing the end of their contract for the state’s Springfield Materials Recovery Facility in June 2020.

The contract, arranged through the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District and other entities, allowed towns that pre-sort their materials to receive $8 per ton for recyclables.

For the 19 towns in the solid waste district, that meant more than $11,000 in revenue for the first six months of 2018 for the 1,400 tons of recycled materials. Orange, the only town in the district that does not pre-sort its recyclables, does not receive the $8 per ton base revenue.

The financial benefit of recycling has shrunk in recent years. It used to fetch $15 a ton.

Yet, the current $8 is far better than the $50 to $85 per ton that many communities in eastern and central Massachusetts have been paying to get rid of their recyclable materials.

But the new global market shift means that when area towns draft a new contract for recycling – in about 18 months – they are likely to join other state towns in paying a processing fee – maybe $40 to $60 per ton, local officials estimate.

Montague, which recycled more than 274 tons from January through June 2018, earning nearly $2,200 for those recyclables, instead would pay $10,000 to $16,500 to process that material, for example.

However, it’s not all bad news. Officials at the regional trash management district think towns that pre-sort may be able to negotiate getting a slice of the money the recyclables bring on the market, offsetting up to half of the processing fee.

So it looks like recycling – originally seen as a way for municipalities to extend the lives of their landfills and offset trash costs – will keep its economic advantage, especially as disposing of landfill trash will continue to creep up over time.

And longer term, experts see possible growth in the U.S. market for recycled materials, which should make our discarded plastic, metal and paper more valuable, not less.

It’s hard to imagine a time when recycling would cost more than burying trash, so there should always be a financial incentive to do the green thing. But regardless, we need to continue to promote more recycling and reuse of materials of daily living to minimize what we waste in landfills, so we can more carefully use the natural resources on which the billions living on the globe today depend – and more importantly, on which the billions to follow will as well.


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