For most towns and cities in Connecticut, recycling has become a budget obligation rather than a source of income, due to fluctuating markets overseas.
But we should think about recycling not in terms of short-term fluctuations of the market, but rather as a long-term investment, like a retirement fund.
Jennifer Heaton-Jones and CJ May offered those perspectives on the economics of recycling on the most recent episode of the WNHH and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) program “The Municipal Voice.”
Heaton-Jones is the executive director of the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority. May is the refuse/recycling coordinator for the city of Waterbury.
For people like May and Heaton-Jones, recycling is a story. It’s about what goes from industry to retail to home to materials recovery facilities (also known as MRFs, where the materials are sorted) and then on to a new life to be turned back into raw materials. But how you tell that story is just as important.
Heaton-Jones’ Housatonic Authority does a lot of public education, going into schools teaching kids what recycling is, making sure kids know what is and isn’t recyclable.
And May noted that before he started in Waterbury, many towns and cities did not have recycling coordinators, and many did not have a Facebook page. He said that while social media has other ills, over 10,000 people engaged with a post about Waterbury’s new recycling bins.
Educating the public is important because, as Heaton-Jones said, “what you put in the blue bin is important because it tells you what the value will be at the back end as a commodity.”
It comes as a surprise to many who have the best intentions that not everything that’s made of glass, plastic, paper, or metal is recyclable. This is known as wish-cycling because many people wish that all products can be simply renewed into raw materials, endlessly reused, much like the symbol for recycling suggests.
So when things like rubber hose, spiral wound containers, and even dangerous items like propane tanks find themselves in the recycling bin, it costs money for MRFs to clean those items out.
One item that Heaton-Jones noted that is kept out of the recycling stream is shredded paper. While still being highly recyclable, all it does is clog up MRFs by attaching itself to other items.
This is one of the issues with mixed recycling. Formerly known as single stream — the name change was prompted in part by wish-cycling — mixed recycling is giving way to dual stream recycling. This is where you separate out cardboard and paper in one stream, plastic, glass, and metal in the other. Because it’s already “cleaned,” it eliminates some of the need for MRFs.
Both May and Heaton-Jones are on board with further refining the recycling streams by updating Deposit Laws. Heaton-Jones said that for years this needed reforming, but “we were able to ignore it when the markets were high.”
Upping the deposit fee on bottles and cans, and adding new streams like wine bottles, might give more incentive for people to head over to redemption centers and get their deposit money back. Bottles from Redemption centers are super clean streams of recycled materials, and “the cleaner [the stream], the cheaper it is [to recycle].”
If towns are going to continue to pay fees to remove what’s in the blue bins, then decreasing the amount of materials that need to be processed is one of the easiest ways to lessen a municipality’s fees.
But May noted that recycling is “more than just tipping fees,” requesting that we ask “is it helping the environment with an appropriate amount of expense or income?” Even as a cost, recycling is still better for the earth and cheaper than trash that gets thrown into landfills.