The cost of recycling continues to go up, and Cabarrus County will face some decisions going forward on how best to tackle the increased expense.
A current recycling contract the county has with Republic Services—to collect local recycling from unincorporated areas of the county and haul to a facility in Mecklenburg County—ends this month, and at that point the cost per ton of material would increase, meaning the fee for residents could double unless the county subsidizes the service or drops it altogether.
“We all like to generate waste,” county Sustainability Manager Kevin Grant told commissioners at the Monday, May 6, work session. “We all do it. But we don’t want it in our backyard, and we don’t want to pay for it. So it’s that really difficult situation.”
The current contract with Republic Services includes about 110,000 residents, convenience centers, schools and county buildings. New terms to the contract would be a flat cost of $95 a ton with no rebate based on market value, as it has been in the past.
“It’s going to be straight processing cost,” Grant said. “Just to let you all know, that is standard, and that’s what you’re starting to see throughout not only the region, the state but also the country. We’re going through a crossroads with recycling right now.”
Grant said the county had a few options. They could pass the increased recycling cost onto the consumer, adding about $3 per month onto residents’ recycling bills. That would bring the total up to $6.24 per month. The county could also join with Republic to subsidize the program, with Cabarrus either paying the entire cost or covering half and residents shouldering a smaller increase.
Or the county could stop collecting rural recycling altogether. Grant said Republic would contribute some funds that commissioners could put to enhancing or adding to the two recycling convenience centers.
“That’s kind of what we’re wrestling with right now,” he said. “Our cost has gone up greatly over the last couple of years, and we do have some money in the budget for recycling.”
A tough market
A big reason the county finds itself in this predicament, Grant said, is just the nature of the recycling market across the country. China began rejecting most of the recycled material coming from the U.S., and that’s where most of recyclables had gone. That has created an oversupply, and the amount facilities can sell material for has gone down.
Not to mention the little that China has continued to accept is under much stricter standards for contamination by non-recyclable materials. Grant said when many places began going to single-stream recycling—or putting everything in the same bin—participation increased, but so did the number of contaminants.
“You get a lot of folks who what we like to call wishful thinking recycling, putting things in there hoping or thinking it should be recycled when it really isn’t accepted from these facilities,” Grant said.
Many recycling facilities use a mechanical and manual dual separation method, meaning some materials such as plastic bags, garden hoses and coat hangers can get tangled up in the machines and break them down.
“It slows the process down,” he said. “They’ve got to shut the facility down, increase their processing costs and then with the market being as depressed as it is right now, it’s just a very difficult circumstance. At this point, it’s still a very important thing to do is recycling. I think a majority of the folks in this country and this region want to recycle. We get positive comments. It’s just we’ve got to get to that reality that it costs money to recycle, and I think once we get past that hurdle, we’ll be back on a good course.
“It costs money. We like to generate waste and trash and recyclables, but a lot of us don’t like to pay the money that goes along with it. And unfortunately, that’s going to have to start to change.”
What that means in the short term is that Cabarrus County in some way, shape or form is going to have to pay more for recycling in the coming fiscal year than in the past. And the county is already seeing an increase. In fiscal year 2018, recycling cost the county $34,000; already this fiscal year, the county has paid $85,000. Grand said he expected to pay another $50,000.
“The cost continues to go up, and as the recycling market hopefully kind of chills out a little bit, hopefully what’s going to happen with this whole thing with China is it’s going to create a lot more domestic recycling opportunities and maybe some more businesses in this area,” Grant said. “As that starts to pop up, hopefully this cost goes down. Hopefully this is the peek high cost at this point, although I keep saying that the last couple of years. The reality is that recycling does cost us money. It’s here to stay.”
Adding to that issue, Grant said, North Carolina has a law banning certain materials from landfills, such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Which is good for keeping landfills clear longer, but it does put a burden on local governments to provide residents an avenue to comply with the law.
“If they’re going to continue to have a ban on putting stuff in the landfill, I still think we need to provide a source for folks, an alternate source, so they’re not putting it in the trash and violating that landfill ban,” he said.
Some commissioners seemed hesitant to put the financial burden on residents.
“I think it’s a little off to ask the taxpayer as a whole to subsidize the service that some are getting,” commissioner Blake Kiger said. “I mean just on the surface, I’m not sure how fair that is when you think about the county as a whole.”
But many also seemed agreed that stopping service to the unincorporated areas wasn’t a great option, either.
“You’re starting to see stories about curbside recycling being disbanded, which I think is a mistake,” Grant said. “Once it picks up, the market gets better, I think you’ll see those folks trying to start if up again, and I don’t think you want to stop this momentum because I think the majority of folks in this region, this country, we do want to recycle. We want to preserve resources.”
Commissioner Lynn Shue said that local governments in the region were going to need to continue to work together to tackle the waste problem, specifically as it relates to the landfill at the Speedway, which has limited life left.
“The problem that we have, it’s not going to go away any time soon, the rate we’re growing, not only locally but regionally,” he said. “We’ve got to have a place to dispose of our household waste, and as much of that stuff that can be recycled is going to be better, no doubt. But I think as time goes on, the potential of the closing of the speedway landfill and then even our own landfill. Even with that, I think we’re going to start looking maybe regionally to get rid of the waste. A big problem of this is nobody wants a landfill next door.”
Commission chair Steve Morris said he was grateful these conversations continued to happen, as he had noticed a change in his own behavior.
“I’ve found some strings in my recycling container that came off of bails of pine needles,” he said. “The more we know about and the more we talk about it, [the better]. It seems like it sounds reasonable to me that we budget for that this current year and continue to evaluate the situation. I think that our citizens are supportive of recycling. I think they would be very upset if we eliminated that.
If we eliminate recycling, even though it’s gotten more expensive, and start to fill up landfills with that material and then try to replace those landfills, the cost is going to be far greater long term, not to mention all of the environmental concerns.”