Mixed-item bales of PET plastics, the kind commonly found in clear water bottles, stacked up at a Richmond, Indiana, recycling company in November 2018. (Photo: Robert Scheer/IndyStar)
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Recycling for Evansville consumers is pretty convenient — all items get tossed into one container, no sorting necessary. But at what cost?
All Evansville residents pay a $10.65 monthly fee for curbside recycling and trash collection.
Residents just have to put all of their recyclable items — plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum and steel cans — into a single container the size of their garbage can and put it at the curb.
However, what made it easier for people to recycle is making it harder for companies such as Tri-State Resource Recovery, which sorts Evansville’s recyclables, to turn a profit.
Single-stream recycling was hailed as a winning proposition when it became available in Evansville. By sorting the collected materials at recycling centers instead of at the curb, municipalities and companies could reduce the hassle of recycling by no longer asking participants to separate their items before setting them out.
It was expected this would increase participation rates. More participation meant communities such as Evansville could extend the life of the landfills taking their trash, reducing future disposal costs.
Increased participation also meant recycling companies could up the volume of materials coming in, offering the potential for more profit. Waste haulers saved money by needing less employees, time and fuel to collect recycling. City residents saved money because this translated to lower bills.
Programs that often only took the most common types of plastics, such as milk, soft drink and water bottles, were now able to take plastics labeled number 3-7 as well, although glass remained a problem.
It was all made possible by a combination of equipment and manpower that sorted the items from each other on a conveyor belt, removing unwanted trash along the way.
Much of that happened when Tri-State Resource Recovery switched to single-stream recycling and signed a new contract with the city in 2012. At the same time, Republic Services signed a new contract to collect the city’s trash and recyclables at a lower cost to the city.
Evansville’s residential bill decreased $1.50 while citywide participation in curbside recycling rose as high as 81 percent. That has since leveled off at about 64 percent, said Brian Whitesell, Tri-State’s general manager.
But the new process also caused higher contamination rates of the sorted materials, Whitesell said, a problem nationwide for single-stream recycling. It still worked, however, largely because the materials could be exported.
That ended last year when China, the world’s largest importer of such materials, dramatically changed its policy, Whitesell said. The country now only accepts scrap materials with 0.5 percent contamination.
The industry standard, he said, is 5 percent or less. However, even that is a problem for many single-stream recycling programs now.
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Changes to the world market because of China’s restrictions have caused the price per ton of recyclables to plummet and created an overabundance of supply as programs compete to sell their materials.
The prices Tri-State was receiving for its recyclables last year dropped from $53 a ton in January 2018 to $38 a ton in November 2018, Whitesell said.
“Single-stream has been very nice for the customers but not as good for recycling companies,” said Joe Ballard, executive director of the Vanderburgh County Solid Waste Management District.
These shifting economics have caused many communities to re-examine their recycling programs in the last year as waste processors have shifted away from single-stream recycling or limited the materials they accept.
“We are in a period of uncertainty like the market has never seen before,” Whitesell said.
But he said that while Tri-State Resource Recovery is feeling some of those pressures, it and Evansville have been shielded from the full effect by a unique set of local circumstances.
“Because we are a non-profit we can absorb that in other ways as long as we break even at the end of the year,” Whitesell said.
So while it may not make much right now with its municipal contract, Tri-State can do better through commercial contracts, processing already segregated materials such as mixed paper and corrugated cardboard.
“That side of the business from day one has always carried this side of the business,” Whitesell said.
A three-way arrangement of contracts between Tri-State, Republic Services and the city locks them into a unique arrangement protecting them from dramatic market changes .
“All of this market volatility that is happening is directly affecting the city’s contract with Republic and also with Tri-State,” said Ed Ziemer, deputy director for operations at the Evansville Water & Sewer Utility.
He said the city pays Republic $374,318 annually, with built-in adjustments for inflation and fuel costs. About $79,000 of that cost is for recycling pickup.
The contract requires Republic to deliver the curbside recyclables to Tri-State. Ziemer said the city separately contracts with Tri-State to accept and process those recyclables, paying it $11,000 a month.
“It really is a coalition of municipality, citizens, the hauler and us,” Whitesell said. “If one aspect of that fell apart, it crumbles.”
Even so, the market glut is making it difficult to off-load those materials after sorting, Whitesell said.
Currently, about 8 percent of what is brought in is trash removed in the sorting process and sent to the landfill, he said. Glass adds another 3 percent to what ends up in the landfill.
With only so much storage space available, there have also been times when Tri-State has had to send some number 3-7 plastics to the landfill on occasion when a buyer couldn’t be found for it in the last year, Whitesell said.
“In my 23 years in this industry, it has been through lots of issues. I’m optimistic that solutions will be found to continue recycling in its current format,” he said.
Penn Waste processes about 700-800 tons per day. Take a peak at what the process looks like at Penn Waste’s recycling center.
Ty Lohr, firstname.lastname@example.org
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