For schools, churches, cities — and you — recycling no longer pays

A ‘single stream’ recycling system at work

Workers sort recycled materials at the Rolling Meadows Materials Recovery Facility in Shawnee County near Topeka. The center uses a system of machines to sort the co-mingled recycling that garbage haulers collect from residents and separate out th
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Workers sort recycled materials at the Rolling Meadows Materials Recovery Facility in Shawnee County near Topeka. The center uses a system of machines to sort the co-mingled recycling that garbage haulers collect from residents and separate out th

The Brandt family recycles — and has for years — at the elementary school near their home in Blue Springs.

“We’d always run up our paper and our plastics and cardboard that we had,” Mike Brandt said. “I went up there one day and I’m like, ‘Where’s the bins?’ 

This summer, the Blue Springs School District reluctantly removed 71 recycling dumpsters it had open to the public. The bins had provided a service to the community. They had raised hundreds of dollars a month for school supplies and program budgets, depending on how many tons of recyclables each bin collected.

Kansas City, Kan., schools have closed their recycle bins to the public, too. So have Independence schools and Lee’s Summit schools.

Recycling no longer pays. The lesson America is beginning to learn is that recycling costs.

“They’re now actually charging the school district to have these containers and to come pick up these containers,” Blue Springs district spokeswoman Katie Woolf said. “It became cost prohibitive.”

Large recycling operators in the Kansas City area confirm that curbside recycling prices are rising for consumers, too.

The operators are pressed on one side by their costs, from running trucks though neighborhoods to pick up recyclables at the ends of driveways, to running that mix through a huge sorting center, called a material recovery facility, MRF or “murf” for short.

On the other side, their revenues are being squeezed.

Blame the weak global economy. Blame China for its “green fence” policy that rejects American plastics, paper, cardboard, glass and other recyclables that have too much garbage and contaminants mixed in with them.

Blame cheap oil. Prices for recyclable plastics in particular have crashed alongside oil, from which new plastics are made.

“It’s more economical to make something out of oil than to take a bottle and recycle it into something new,” said Lisa McDaniel, solid waste program manager at the Mid-America Regional Council, or MARC, that has helped direct recycling efforts in the region.

And blame ourselves for not finding enough uses for this stuff even as our increasing willingness to recycle has engorged markets with materials.

The result is that ready-to-recycle cardboard, mixed paper and even aluminum cans fetch fractions of the values they held just five years ago.

Falling values for recyclable goods are forcing some cities to pay more to keep public drop-off sites open. Lee’s Summit closed its city recycling center in February. About the same time, California’s largest recycling operator shuttered 191 drop-off sites because it couldn’t afford to staff them.

Two weeks ago, the head of one of the biggest recycling operations in the nation declared that the industry has to re-educate the public on the “true economics” of recycling.

“This changes the role of recycling in our community from what was in the past a commodity-based, perceived ‘free’ service, to a cost-based service,” David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management Inc., which operates Deffenbaugh Industries in the Kansas City area, told an industry conference in New Orleans.

Price pinch

Schools, municipalities and social programs are learning firsthand that recycling now costs.

In the Lee’s Summit School District, schools had earned about $9,000 a year from the recycling bins placed in their parking lots by Deffenbaugh. There were, at one point, 500 area schools, churches and other groups taking part in the company’s One Earth, One Chance School Recycling Program.

Those bins not only raised money, they also encouraged the community to recycle.

“It was really an educational program, saying this is the right thing to do,” said Ron Cox, the district’s director of purchasing and distribution services. “We carried that all the way from the classroom to the living room.”

Last spring, Waste Management ended Deffenbaugh’s school program. Cox said the school district would have to pay $14,000 to keep all of those bins in place for a year. Like the Blue Springs district, it is cutting back the number of bins the schools themselves expect to fill each month.

The city of Blue Springs has never made money on the public recycling center it opened on Pink Hill Road in 2010, with grant support from MARC. A recent sharp drop in prices for recyclables means the budget pinch has tightened.

A year ago, the city had spent about $19,500 operating the Pink Hill Road site. Revenue it earned by selling the material that it collected had covered half the city’s costs.

In the last 12 months, Blue Springs spent about $20,000 at Pink Hill Road. But revenues from the recyclables plunged.

The No. 2 plastics collected — items such as milk jugs and liquid detergent bottles — sold for only $60 a ton compared with $320 a ton a year earlier. The city got 55 percent less for aluminum cans and 50 percent less for No. 1 plastics such as water bottles.

In total, Pink Hill Road’s 12-month take has fallen to an estimated $2,500 from nearly $9,700 a year earlier, even though residents recycled many more tons of material there.

Many area residents already pay for recycling as part of their trash bill, often as one combined price. Some may not know how much they pay, for example, if it’s covered through homeowners association dues or through a citywide contract.

Prices for recycling and trash pickup in Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County went up last year, though the charge on residents’ BPU bill doesn’t break out how much either costs.

Waste Management and WCA Corp., which bought Town & Country last fall, acknowledged that prices for curbside recycling have been increasing, though they declined to provide details. Curbside prices have risen as the prices each company gets for the materials it collects have fallen.

Kevin O’Brien, regional vice president for WCA, said low prices in December squeezed operations of the company’s Harrisonville sorting facility but have recovered some ground this summer.

“As those values came up, we’re able to operate in a profit line,” O’Brien said.

Still, Waste Management’s recycling operations nationally have lost money off and on for the last four years.

Recycling made more economic sense when prices for recyclable materials were much higher than they are now.

Several years ago, Scott Holmberg, an engineer, helped set up a recycling site at the Johnson County Sheltered Workshop in Warrensburg, Mo. It generated money for the workshop’s effort to employ and teach employment skills to those with development or injury-induced disabilities.

Three years ago, Holmberg became head of the workshop and has found out that recycling wasn’t working.

Instead of making money, the recycling drop-off center and pickup service lost $100,000 last year even after selling what it they had taken in.

This year, it couldn’t even sell all of it. One reliable vendor wouldn’t take the workshop’s plastic, and another offered to haul it away free but wouldn’t buy it.

Holmberg said the workshop stopped accepting plastic on Aug. 15, but he has hopes other materials will fare better.

“If the market for cardboard would spike, that would be wonderful,” he said.

Why the decline?

America has learned to recycle better than it has learned how to use all of the material the effort produces.

The demand for recyclable material suffered during the Great Recession. Downturns in Europe, Japan and other parts of the world also cut into the demand for old corrugated cardboard, aluminum cans and other recyclable material.

Economies have recovered, but growth has remained slow and demand for recyclable materials has remained tepid.

For a long time, China bought much of what America had stuffed into bins at the end of its driveways. China’s economy was soaring and needed any resources it could find.

Slower growth in China has allowed its policymakers to become pickier about the resources they buy. China’s “green fence” policy three years ago tightened standards for how clean recyclable material from America must be. There had been too much cross contamination of materials — glass in the plastic or plastic in the paper — and too much garbage in all of it.

Cheap oil prices have cut into the demand for recyclable plastics by making it cheaper to make new plastic.

“The worldwide demand for these products just dropped off,” said Brent Bell, Waste Management vice president of recycling operations. “We need to create demand.”

Toward that end, Waste Management has sales agents visiting potential buyers in India and South America.

Kansas City offers the world a lesson in how to combine the effort to recycle with the need to find a home for what shows up in those bins. It’s called Ripple Glass, and it took on one of recycling’s toughest materials.

Because glass breaks, it causes problems in big sorting facilities and easily contaminates other materials heading to buyers.

Ripple’s purple bins started taking in glass bottles around the Kansas City area for the glass processing plant local backers had financed. A MARC grant paid for the bins and promotion. Those bins have grown to 100 locally and are popping up in six states total.

The trick was having a five-year contract to sell the plant’s “three-mix, furnace-ready” glass product to fiberglass maker Owens Corning operating essentially across the street. Owens Corning renewed the deal for five more years a couple of years ago, and Ripple Glass’s Stacia Stelk said other potential buyers operate nearby, including CertainTeed and Johns Mansville.

“We are in the black and growing more every year,” Stelk said.

Adding sustainabilty

One lesson the recycling industry continues to study is how to make the business sustainable for the long haul.

Recycling has worked by pulling materials that have value out of the American waste stream. Divert the good stuff so it doesn’t end up in landfills. High values for recyclables made the effort good business.

“There were municipalities making millions of dollars for recycling,” Bell said.

Many communities have turned to curbside pickup as a way to get more residents to divert more recyclables from the waste stream. In Johnson County, Kan., for example, each licensed trash service must also provide curbside recycling. Same in Independence.

Shawnee Mission schools had been part of a recycling program that paid the schools some time ago, but the program no longer exists. Residents, however, still believe the school gets paid, said Joan Leavens, the district’s coordinator of sustainability and community engagement. And now, the district is testing ideas to urge residents to recycle at home.

“Schools currently do not receive $$ for recycling. Please use curb side recycling,” says a sign on a recycling bin at Belinder Elementary in Prairie Village.

If the message reduces volumes in the school’s bins, it could spread to other schools.

Overall, the push to curbside recycling has worked, boosting recycling participation rates and how much stuff is being diverted from the waste stream.

Curbside recycling also adds costs, and a big part of that is sorting out the huge piles of stuff tossed together in those thousands of curbside recycling bins.

The great sort happens at a material recovery facility, or “murf.” WCA runs a MRF in Harrisonville on the Missouri side. Waste Management runs one in Kansas City, Kan. The Kansas City, Kan., MRF has shut down for 30 days as Waste Management installs millions of dollars worth of sorting equipment, the kind its MRF north of Topeka uses.

A recent visit to Topeka showed that Americans need a good lesson in how to recycle. Crews have found backyard propane tanks — including ones still containing propane — in the mountain of recyclables that arrive. They’ve filled a trash can with large plastic bottles stuffed full of used syringe needles. Other trash cans have been filled with fire extinguishers, automotive belts, car parts and other stuff not meant for household recycling sorting centers.

One un-recyclable pile at the Topeka MRF includes cans of camping stove fuel, clothing, garden hoses, a door, lumber, a lawn chair and a basketball hoop with the backboard still attached.

Plastic bags in the big recycle pile often end up wrapped around spinning axles in the sorting equipment, forcing a crew of five to strip them out each morning before the day’s operation. Bags that make it though contaminate the cardboard, office paper or newsprint that gets baled for sale.

“I end up with a bunch of plastic in my news,” said Tronnie Blair, the Topeka MRF manager.

One idea for dealing with sloppy recyclers is called a “dirty murf.” Households would put everything in one container at the curb and let the recycling centers sort out what’s trash and what’s recyclable.

Other environmentally friendly efforts have made the recycling business less financially sustainable. Recall, for example, that recycling is supposed to be a last resort among the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Some packaging is being reduced. The label on an Aquafina bottle served at Kauffman Stadium said it was an “Eco-Fina bottle,” which meant it contained 50 percent less plastic “on average vs. our 2002 bottle.”

It means the recycling industry has to pick up, haul, sort and bale 100,000 bottles to generate the one ton of plastic they used to get from 66,000 bottles. Factor in sharply lower prices for a ton of plastic, and the financial sense of recycling stretches closer to the breaking point.

The threat from recycling’s shifting economics isn’t that trash companies will start dumping plastic in landfills. Hauling services have to pay for the waste they dump. Getting even a little bit for the plastic makes recycling the easy choice.

Low prices become a problem if they make picking up recycling too costly in the first place.

“If we had to depend on just plastics, we couldn’t do it,” said Maureen York, vice president of EnviroStar Waste Services Inc.

Based in Grain Valley, the company collects trash, yard waste and recycling in parts of Independence, Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and other areas of eastern Jackson County. The company’s recycling program works, York said, because recyclers chip in.

EnviroStar customers have to sort their recyclables. Cardboard goes in one bag the company supplies, plastics in another, aluminum cans in a third before it all reaches the curb.

And customers pay $5 a month extra for recycling. York said the company has found that consumers who want to recycle are willing to pay to do it. And it seems fair.

“If you don’t do it, then you’re not paying for it either,” York explained.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar