US Cities Stop Recycling. What Will Westport Do?

On Sunday, the New York Times published a front-page story:”As Costs Skyrocket, More US Cities Stop Recycling.”

It turns out that because China — our former number one customer — no longer accepts used plastic and paper, because it’s mixed with too much other trash, towns and cities across our country have seen collection bills rise steeply. The result: They’ve ended their programs, or now burn or bury more waste.

Many readers’ first thought was: “Holy smoke!” 

Their second was: “I wonder what my community is doing?”

To find out the 06880 answer, I contacted 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. He responded:

Pete Ratkiewich, our Public Works director, has been addressing this issue for several years.

The situation described in the Times article is also a reality here in Westport. In the recent past, international companies would buy US recyclables for reuse and repurpose abroad. As such, the town of Westport received compensation for its recyclable materials.

Recycling takes place all around Westport. This is the Farmers’ Market.

In 2018, China determined that US recyclables are too “contaminated” to be reused or repurposed, so that market has since ceased to exist (as well as in other countries such as India). So what was once a revenue generator here in Westport is now a cost to us.

The good news is that the town’s focus on recycling for several decades has “trained” all of us to think about what should be recycled and how best to do it.  Many of us still have and use our blue bins.

Up to the end of the fiscal year that ended July 2018, the town of Westport was realizing revenue from our recycling programs. But the cumulative cost effect for this fiscal year, and the next one we are budgeting for, is a total of $300,000.

We saw this coming, and have actively pursued alternative approaches along with a number of neighboring communities. Westport is in a consortium with approximately 14 other communities called the Greater Bridgeport Regional Recycling Interlocal Committee.

The GBRRIC — also called “the Interlocal” — aggregates all of our municipal recyclables, thereby increasing our purchasing power with private haulers. The GBRRIC recently negotiated a contract with Oak Ridge Waste and Recycling, and determined that the GBRRIC cost of recycling is now $75 per ton. As recently as 2017, that same recycling yielded a revenue of $25 per ton.

Annually, Westport residents generate 3,300 tons of recyclable waste. The total trash generated is approximately 10,000 tons from residents and 6,000 tons from commercial entities.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection sets guidelines on what materials should be recycled. We believe that glass products should be removed from the list of recyclables and set aside from the other materials, given their high level of contaminants. We have found that glass has become one of the most frequently rejected recycled commodities for that reason, and also a major contributor to our tonnage total.

Our Green Task Force, currently being rebranded as “Sustainable Westport,” is leading the charge to find alternate solutions that either cut our recycling expenses, or reduce the amount of waste that gets generated here in Westport.  Efforts underway include a composting program at Greens Farms Elementary School, which will roll out to other schools and hopefully other entities as the pilot proves the value of composting.

Also, we plan to lobby the state to allow glass to be placed in a separate recycling stream, and to change related recycling regulations.

The immediate challenge is that the Town’s fiscal year 2020 budget will need to reflect the increased cost of the recycling process.

15 responses to “US Cities Stop Recycling. What Will Westport Do?

  1. Westporters can help the problem by remembering the first two R’s – Reduce and Reuse, with Recycling being the last option. That means, cancel the catalogues you don’t need, eliminate as many ‘single use’ items from your life as you can (e.g. switch to a refillable bottle) and use dishes and silverware instead of disposables.

  2. That’s odd, I wonder why the First Selectman didn’t mention his administration’s suggestion at a Board of Finance budget meeting last week, that an annual fee perhaps be imposed upon Westport residents who use the Transfer Station to address this situation. I see a lot of senior citizens using that facility.

  3. Matthew Mandell

    The RTM Environment Committee was discussing this very thing last night.
    The basic problem is that our recycling is not clean. People throw all sorts of stuff in there spoiling the loads. Now the damage is done and we have to rework the whole system. Single stream got more people to recycle but it did not work as planned. The integrity of each type was harmed. Paper having bits of aluminum in it messed it up.

    I have a pet peeve – plastic bags in the recycling bins. It is posted NO PLASTIC BAGS on the recycling bins yet people still throw bags filled with plastic, glass and cans in the bin. STOP!!!! The bags destroy the mechanics of the recycling, slowing down the process and sometimes destroying a whole load.


  4. Kathleen Bennewitz

    I am in Canada right now and we were just commenting last night at dinner how significantly much more sustainably minded–“Zero Waste Bulk”–the country, restaurants, businesses and people are. Lessons to be learned from Niagara to Toronto.

  5. Jens Buettner

    It’s not true that glass is contaminated, that’s a contra productive approach to sustainability. Glass is one of the few products that can be recycled over and over again. The problem is more the single stream recycling and that glass shouldn’t be mixed with paper and plastic. It might brake easier during the sorting process, that’s why it is more difficult to handle and the recycling companies prefer to go the faster and easier way > single stream for example.
    People have to get out of their comfort zone, even in the recycling industry. This sounds more like a lobbying aspect of the plastic industry.

    Here is a link to an article from Stanford University about recycling:

    Q: Can glass be recycled?
    A: Glass alone makes up 5% of garbage in the U.S. It’s a shame if any glass container uses up landfill space because glass lasts forever. The long-lasting nature of glass also means that glass can be recycled forever. It never wears out as a raw material, so old bottles and jars can be remanufactured into new glass containers over and over and over again.

  6. I suspected single stream would be a bust. But I never thought I would see, with some regularity, used diapers in the mix. Houseplants aren’t that unusual either. No wonder the Chinese finally threw in the towel.

  7. Jens Buettner

    “In 2018, China determined that US recyclables are too “contaminated” to be reused or repurposed, so that market has since ceased to exist (as well as in other countries such as India)”.

    That’s not true either, because it suggests that China doesn’t take US garbage because it’s as Marpe says “too contaminated”. Which means if it wouldn’t be contaminated they would take it.

    The fact is that China, as well as India and other countries in Asia decided not to be the dump for the rest of the world. This problem doesn’t only concern the US but the rest of the world. Germany and other European countries have exactly the same problem, they have to see how to handle their recycling problematic, now as the ‘garbage export game’ is over and they have to take care of their own garbage and can’t unload it anymore in other countries.

  8. Wendy Batteau

    Matthew’s comments are on point. Glass is often contaminated even by including bottle caps with the glass. However, markets still exist for glass, aluminum and paper/cardboard. It will take perhaps 10 years for companies like Oak Ridge (which purchased the recycling plants in Danbury and Shelton from longtime owner Winter Brothers and has made large capital investments in the technology for single-stream recycling) to adapt to new protocols.The RTM Environment Committee is working with the Public Works Director to develop new guidelines for consumer recycling and rewriting our town recycling ordinance in light of the current reality.

  9. Jens Buettner

    Mrs Batteau, sorry, but it is not correct what you are saying and you are creating a wrong impression of certain recyclables.

    Mr Mandell didn’t say with one word in his comment that glass is contaminated, he said “The basic problem is that our recycling is not clean. People throw all sorts of stuff in there spoiling the loads”, he is talking about the mix and that people throw stuff in which doesn’t belong there.

    Also you remark “However, markets still exist for glass, aluminum and paper/cardboard.” gives wrong impression, as if the markets for these recycables are vanishing.

    These markets are growing, because glass, aluminum and cardboard belong to the purest recyclable materials.

    The only problem with glass is within the glass, when you mix different sorts of glass, as they have a different melting points, which makes it more complicated.
    The remaining aluminum cap is not a big issue.

    The plastic and only the plastic is the problem and will be the problem for generations to come.

    So please do your due diligence before you post these remarks, as they implement in the peoples head that glass or aluminum are problematic recycables.

  10. Dave Feliciano

    Is not recycled plastic used to make structures like playground in Compo Beach, Trex, Azeck, etc and the rails of many parks posts, garden platformsetc. Is not the polartec type outerwear also made of recycled plastic bottles in China and sold for markups? As for Glass is extremely recyclable roadways made out of recycled glass were found to be extremely durable. Recycled Glass bottles make great new bottles in various colors. Breaking them makes for easier transportation. Life is full of complications. That’s where smart people come up with new technologies. I’m betting on ingenuity!

    My German friends tell me that they have 5 to 6 different containers of government mandated recyclables and appropriate fines for violators (of which there are very few).

    In Florida they make giant mounds which I call Mount Saint Garbage. Some early ones have developed underground toxic plumes that threatens water. However I suppose that that can raise the land above the rising seas. Maybe?

    Our neighbors in Westchester County burn certain garbage at high temperatures and generate electricity. They then make and export the “frit”, their term not mine, of what is the residue of the burning trash.

    Aluminum does require a lot of energy to recycle but much less than to create it. And a lot less digging, pollution, desiel trucks and tractors, and open mining pits. Drive or fly through Arkansas where lot of the materials to make aluminum come from to see these pits first hand.

  11. can someone tell me why we still have newspapers being delivered. I can read on my Mac, iPhone or iPad. haven’t touched a paper in years other than to toss my wife’s fully, maybe partially, read NYT’s.

    • The answer is that those who prefer to read a traditional newspaper pay to have them delivered. Instead of tossing it when our household is done, we pass it to our neighbor who loves the crosswords. And then she recycles it.

  12. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    “Use it up wear it out make it do or do without” “Loose lips sink ships”
    “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me”
    How blessed we are who were raised by the Greatest Generation.
    How cursed we are to have to live with the leaders we have now.