Is recycling in Iowa worth the cost?
Plummeting values of recyclables and rising costs to process them could threaten recycling programs and ultimately send more waste to the landfill — in Linn County and elsewhere.
Declining oil prices have made it more costly to haul recycled materials and cheaper to produce brand-new plastic. Foreign demand for recycling commodities, particularly China, has dried up. Recycling vendors are struggling to sell the products, making it more expensive to find a second life for plastic bottles, newspapers and tin cans.
“It’s all about the recycling markets,” said Joe Horaney, a spokesman for the solid waste agency. “Oil prices are so low, there’s no demand for recycled plastics. It’s cheaper to make new.
“The paper market is down. Scrap metal prices are one-sixth of what they were a year ago. There’s just not the demand for material.”
The downturn is being felt around the country, and in Linn County a new two-year recycling contract between Cedar Rapids/Linn County Solid Waste Agency — which serves the communities in Linn County — and Republic Services Inc., a national recycling processor, is expected to be finalized next month. The contract is anticipated to increase the tipping fee 88 percent for recycling, up from $34.50 to $65 per ton, effective July 1.
Republic, which bought out the area’s old recycler, City Carton, last year, sorts the recycling and finds end buyers, and that has become more challenging. The company was contacted but didn’t comment for the article.
Residents in larger communities such as Cedar Rapids may barely notice the difference. The 41,000 curbside recycling customers should see a 39 cent or 9 percent increase, up from $4.29 per month, to $4.68 per month.
The question is what happens with the next contract, said Mark Jones, an agency board member and the Cedar Rapids solid waste manager.
“At what point does a community decide, ‘This is getting to be too expensive to continue,’” Jones said. “I have no answer to that.”
The cost increase in Cedar Rapids is defrayed over its many residents. In smaller communities, such as Walker, which has about 800 residents, the impact could be greater, a city official said.
“I can guarantee you, our citizens are not going to want to see their bills go up from $15 to $25, $30 or $35 a month,” Connie Helms, Walker’s treasurer and clerk told members of the agency board last week. “They will just say, ‘Quit recycling, and we will be throwing it in the garbage.’”
The tipping fee for solid waste at the landfill is $38 per ton.
Marion officials have yet to identify new rates for residents. Projects in the works may mitigate the size of the increase, but there will be some increase, said Ryan Miller, Marion’s public service director.
The Des Moines Metro Waste Authority, which primarily serves Polk County, saw its recycling tipping fee increase from about $40 to $46 and lost about two-thirds of the rebate from resale of recyclables, said Leslie Irlbeck. program and outreach manager for the authority.
The authority gets back about $12,000 per month, down from about $36,000.
“Recycling is just as important as it always has been, but it just isn’t as lucrative as it once was,” Irlbeck explained. “What consumers are realizing is, in the end, it is a waste. They purchased it, and when they are done using, there is a cost associated with maintenance and removal of that material.”
Until this new contract in Linn County, the solid waste agency has subsidized the $34.50 per recycling ton from garbage revenue, said Karmin McShane, executive director of the solid waste agency. The agency plans to continue to set aside about $400,000 a year to subsidize $34.50 per recycling ton for communities also dumping solid waste — if the community signs an affidavit saying the curbside recycling program will continue, McShane said.
Those that don’t also use the landfill would bear the full brunt of the $65 per ton recycling tipping fee.
The agency can’t afford to subsidize the whole amount, though, she said. The new contract is an opportunity to show people disposing waste, whether solid waste or recycling has a cost, she said.
“The price was been hidden for a long time, but recycling isn’t free and I don’t think many people realize that,” McShane said. “There’s a cost to recycling.”
However, McShane said the sticker shock of an 88 percent increase to $65 a ton for recycling is misleading.
In fiscal 2015, the agency received 177,252 tons of landfill material compared to 12,284 tons of recycled material. It averages about 7.23 pounds of recycling per house per week, or about 376 pounds a year, she said.
Recycling is extremely light, she said. Plastic bottles are getting thinner and thinner, which is another factor in the decreasing value of recycled plastic because more is needed to make plastic reusable, she said.
While the bulk cost looks high, the true cost of recycling is fairly minimal, she said.
“It’s reported in tons, but impact to the household is in pounds,” she said. The cost is about $3.25 per pound of recycling.
The waste agency has seen a 4 percent decrease in tons of recycled materials from 2011 to 2015. The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported a 19 percent decline in that time frame.
McShane challenged the notion people are recycling less, saying the material is getting lighter and certain heavier products are being consumed less, such as newspapers.
McShane agreed the recycling industry is changing and communities will face important questions, such as what materials to recycle. However, she expects the recycling commodity to bounce back — at least for certain materials — and that recycling programs will survive. It remains as important as ever that they do, she said.
“I think what people recycle and how they buy materials will change,” McShane said. “People will be able to base their decision of what does and doesn’t get recycled based on costs and what has value.”