Municipalities suspend curbside recycling programs

Municipalities suspend curbside recycling programs

New Orleans and Perryville, Missouri, scale back or suspend curbside recycling because of falling commodity prices.

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May 21, 2019

New Orleans will no longer accept Nos. 3-7 plastics through curbside collections or at the recycling drop-off center, the city has announced.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration says in a news release that the curbside program will continue, but the city is reducing the amounts and types of items accepted in the bin to “simultaneously improve the marketability of recycled items and reduce contamination.”

Recyclables cut from the program include low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastics and polypropylene (PP) containers. The city will continue to collect No. 1 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspapers, electronics and organics for composting.

The announcement follows a notice from Phoenix-based Republic Services that it will no longer accept residential, single-stream and curbside collections at its recycling center in Metairie, Louisiana, effective May 17. Republic cited rising costs as a result of China’s ban on scrap imports and changes in contamination level requirements in the global market as the reason for the “indefinite suspension.” The city has worked with collections contractor Metro Services Group to find another processor and continue the curbside program in New Orleans.

Global market conditions and an influx of low-quality material labeled as “nonrecyclable” entering material recovery facilities (MRFs) has caused municipalities to suspend or scale back curbside programs across the country as recyclers try to find solutions and expand recycling infrastructure in the U.S.

“We must all do our part to reduce contamination to assist collection, processing and manufacturing companies until new and expanded markets are developed,” says Ramsey Green, deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure for New Orleans. “Although contamination from our area has not exceeded generally acceptable levels, it can be reduced further. It is our hope that these actions will assist in extending the life of the city’s recycling programs.”

Perry County Solid Waste Committee, Missouri, has also suspended its residential curbside recycling program. The city says its decision to end curbside services are due to “rising operational costs and global decreases in recyclable commodity values.”

“City residents can expect curbside service for the final week of this month, but unfortunately we are suspending service at the end of April,” says Perryville City Administrator Brent Buerck.

The city placed stickers with additional information about the cancellation of the curbside program on the sides of blue totes residents were issued to collect their plastics, paper and glass.

According to Waste Management Supervisor Sheila Schnurbusch, one-third of households in Perryville participate in the curbside recycling program. She says the recycling center has struggled to find a market for the recyclables the county is collecting, and estimates the curbside service was operating at a more than $45,000 annual deficit, in part, because of the “rising operational cost and a decrease in the resale price the center gets for the recyclable goods they collect.”

“The resale prices we are getting for recycled materials cover just a fraction of the labor and equipment costs associated with picking up the materials curbside,” Schnurbusch says. “Unfortunately, operating in the red is no longer sustainable.”

Schnurbusch says cardboard, plastics, office paper and magazines are just a few of the recyclable commodities that have seen "staggering decreases" over the last four years.

“In 2015, cardboard brought around $200 a ton,” she says. “Right now, we are getting $60 a ton. Two months ago, natural plastics brought in $700 a ton. That price has dropped to $300 a ton. Recyclable paper products like newsprint, magazines and office paper have also taken big hits.”

Issues began two years ago with the announcement of China’s National Sword Policy. Another factor is the rising cost of oil involved in the transportation, the city notes.

“A lot of what the recycling center takes in right now will likely end up in landfills without a proper place to store it while the United States figures out how to use the products China isn’t buying,” Schnurbusch says.

Commenting on the city’s choice to suspend the program, Commissioner Mike Sauer, who also serves as a member of the Perry County Solid Waste Committee, says, “Our goal with the recycling center has never been to make a lot of money, but we do need to operate without a substantial loss. Continuing to operate the curbside service at a loss was bad business practice.”

He adds, “A couple of years ago, we started charging a $1 monthly fee to city residents participating in the curbside collection, but with the decreased value of the materials, this only covers a fraction of the actual cost to provide the service. The true number needed would be closer to $5 or $6 a month just to break even.”

The city encourages residents to continue recycling by keeping their blue totes and bringing recyclables to the city’s recycling center.

“It’s still important that as a community we continue to recycle,” Sauer says. “It’s in the best interest of the environment for us to keep landfills free of what we can reuse, but until global commodities improve, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to offer curbside pickup.”