Recycling vendors drying up in Tri-Cities

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BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – After two Tri-Cities recycling vendors shut their doors, local municipalities are scrambling to provide recycling services to their residents. 

Abingdon, Bristol, VA and Washington County, VA, announced within the last month that recycling programs will be suspended in their respective municipalities. Bristol-based Reclaimed Resources closed in December 2018, and Tri-City Waste Paper, a branch of Asheville Waste Paper, announced its closure a few weeks later. 

Bristol Public Works Director Wallace McCulloch said the city recycled with Reclaimed Resources until the company closed. The city then turned to Tri-City Waste Paper in Kingsport to no avail. 

“We were looking into taking it over to Kingsport and then they closed that business down the middle of this month,” he said. “The parent company for that business was in Asheville, and they told us that nobody wants the plastic that they have, so they’ve got mounds of plastic down there that nobody wants.

“I think it’s a regional problem, whether or not we get a solution to it, we don’t know yet.”

Reclaimed Resources Founder Ted Cox said the problem started when China stopped importing plastic waste last year. The result, he said, was plummeting prices for all recyclables that made it nearly impossible for his business to make a profit. 

“A couple of years ago, we could get $200 per ton for a bale of cardboard,” Cox said. “The typical prices right now are about $80-90. (It) costs $70-75 per ton to handle it, sort it, bale it and load it. Your profit margin goes to nothing. Those are the issues recycling has to deal with on a daily basis.” 

Another problem plaguing recycling programs, Cox and McCulloch agree, is contaminated products. 

While McCulloch said Bristol will continue to accept cardboard and aluminum at convenience drop-off spots, recycling those items become muddled when materials get mixed. 

“We’re going to continue with cardboard recycling, but when people throw plastic in there, or a cereal box, that’s not cardboard,” he said. “Paper, any of that stuff, if it’s in there with cardboard then that messes that up and we have to start sorting it, then it starts becoming uneconomical, it’s no longer economical for us to do it.” 

Cox estimated that about 30 to 40 percent of the products received in a load would be “unusable.” In Reclaimed Resources’ case, Cox said he would have to pay a fee to dispose of contaminated materials in the city landfill, costing the business even more money. 

Reclaimed Resources’ profits came from selling the recyclables – Cox said that his business didn’t charge clients, like the city of Bristol, for services. 

He said with the way things are right now, there’s no chance for regional recyclers to make money.

“Until the municipalities see that they’re going to have to step up and meet some of the financial costs, recycling is not going to be done in this area in a profitable way,” Cox said. 

McCulloch said the city looked into hauling recyclables to Roanoke, but the cost of transporting items wasn’t worth the price of the plastic. He added that the city has been reaching out to other recycling vendors, but there’s no word on a new vendor coming to the region.

“We would certainly like to try to get someone here into the area that we could reinstate the plastic recycling but we just don’t know yet,” he said.

Cox said his business is looking into an innovative recycling facility to bring to the Tri-Cities. He said the proposed facility would be a first in the country and would cost about $250 million. 

Cox is keeping the details of this potential future recycling facility under wraps for now, but said he hopes the process continues to bring such a facility to the Tri-Cities within the next few years. 

“That will help all municipalities and all areas of waste consumption,” he said. 
 



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