Photo: Michael Cummo / Hearst Connecticut Media
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is warning state officials that recycling, which has been a reliable revenue generator for cities and towns, has now become a new cost due to a changing global market.
A policy shift in China last year means the majority of the country’s recyclable materials are no longer be shipped away for processing, and there is no large-scale domestic market for items like aluminum, glass and plastic.
Where towns were previously able to recover some of their waste disposal costs through revenue generated by recycling programs, there is no longer a viable way to sell materials off.
“This change will result in significant cost increases for local governments and a potential higher tax bill for local property taxpayers,” CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said in a statement. “This also represents yet another example of emerging costs for towns that gives further testimony about the need for the State to provide other local revenues sources for towns other than the property tax.”
DeLong said the “collapse” in the market for recyclable materials is going to put a strain on towns already nervous about declining aid from the state legislature.
CCM said the shift from a revenue to an expense is showing up as municipalities prepare their local 2019-20 budget proposals, which need to be in place by the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
Three of the state’s largest cities are showing major changes, the organization said. Bridgeport will go from $130,000 in revenue to projected $394,380 in expenses. Stamford generated $95,000 in the current fiscal year and will now pay $700,000 to company to process its materials, and Waterbury will be moving from $15,000 in revenue to a $330,000 expense.
“Municipal officials believe that this recycling crisis will not be resolved quickly,” CCM said.
Even in Union, Connecticut’s smallest town, the effect is apparent. CCM said the town will go from $500 in revenue to a $3,000 cost. Milford, Wilton, Plymouth and many other towns also reported a swing from revenue generation to a new expense in their budgets in the next fiscal year, CCM said.
Chris Nelson, supervising environmental analyst at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said U.S. companies are moving toward handling the new over-supply of materials, but it could still be a few years away before their operations are running. Prices plummeted after China’s decision to no longer accept American materials, he said.
“Mixed paper, that used to fetch a positive price but now you’re paying to get rid of it,” Nelson said. “There is relief coming to the system, it’s just not going to be immediate.”
Nelson said despite the price changes, it’s still cheaper to recycle glass, paper, aluminum and other materials that are accepted in single-stream bins than it is to put those items into the regular trash stream for disposal.
State residents also need to know that non-recyclable items put into recycling bins can burden the fragile refuse system in Connecticut, he said. Non-recyclable items or “contaminants” often lead to substantial loads of otherwise recyclable materials getting discarded.
“There’s a lot of ‘wish-cycling’ going on out there. Someone will say ‘I don’t know if this old garden hose is recyclable’ and put it in the bin,” Nelson said. “Contamination in general is a really big problem right now, and it’s a really big contributor to why the price has flipped.”