It wasn’t long ago that cities along the Gulf Coast – and across the country – were earning a nice return from the paper and plastic their residents put into blue recycling bins.

Now, those same cities are paying just to get rid of the recyclables. And elected officials are left with deciding whether to absorb costs, raise fees or perhaps even scale back recycling services.

Prices have fallen precipitously over the past year as a result of China’s decision to ban imports of certain types of recyclables from the United States – and to dramatically raise the quality requirements of what it does buy.

For cities like Daphne on the Eastern Shore, the depressed market has caused budgetary heartache. A couple years ago, the city was defraying part of the cost of garbage and recycling collection by selling material to the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida’s Escambia County. But during the last six months, Daphne actually has had to pay ECUA $2 a ton to take the items.

And with the contract set to expire, it’s about to get a whole lot worse, according to city officials. The terms for renewing the contract call for Daphne to pay $25 per ton. That translates to a cost of about $50,000 that the city did not account for in its current budget. That will require “hard decisions,” Mayor Dane Haygood told FOX10 News.

“We’re proud of our recycling, for sure,” he said. “We’ve done a good job with it. But the market’s not what it used to be.”

Modern Living: Single-stream recycling


Added City Council President Pat Rudicell: “We were making money … and then we went even. And now, it’s costing us money.”

Rudicell said the city is considering a number of options. It could reduce yard waste collection from once a week to every other week. That would save $90,000, he said. Or, the city might decide to recycle only the most valuable items – and dump the rest in the landfill with other garbage.

Rudicell said the city will seek proposals from private companies as it explores the possibility of privatizing the service.

One possibility Rudicell considers unlikely is raising fees, since the current council already hiked rates for trash and recycling services by $1.50 a month per household two years ago.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite for any elected official – especially the council – to raise fees again,” he said.

Recycling woes felt nationally

Cities large and small across the country have grappled with similar choices. The New York Times reports that the city of Philadelphia in recent months has been diverting about half of what residents recycle to a facility that burns trash and converts it into energy. And Memphis International Airport now throws away what it collects in recycling bins.

Much of the recycling collected by cities and counties from the Florida Panhandle to Mississippi send their paper, cardboard, glass and aluminum to the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. Up to 14 trucks a day unload material at the state-owned utility’s 53,460-square-foot Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, in Cantonment

It is an impressive operation. Tractor-trailers come and go, mechanical arms lift and distribute all manner of items, and conveyor belts carry recyclables to different spots where worker bale and ship them. ECUA officials say the facility has processed almost 102,000 tons of recycled materials since September 2016.

The MRF – situated right next to the Perdido Landfill – has remained as busy as ever, working at capacity even during the downturn. But ECUA spokesman Jim Roberts said it has been a struggle. Of those 14 trucks a day, about nine of them a year or so ago used to carry recyclables headed for China, according to ECUA officials.

With that market all but gone, ECUA has had to scramble to find new customers. And the prices have tumbled amid the national glut of supply.

“Everybody in the recycling industry has felt the impact of China,” Roberts said. “But we have some really smart people in terms of how we market our products. So, we’ve been able to market around our clients. And remember, recycling is a business.”

ECUA has been passing some of those losses on to municipalities in the form of higher fees. Mobile Public Works Director John Peavy told FOX10 News that it has been paying the agency $9 per ton to take recyclables collected at two drop-off locations in the city. He said that is set to rise to $25 a ton next week, at a cost of an additional $100,000.

“We’re prepared to do that because it’s a service we’re providing. We can’t conceive of not doing it,” he said. “The citizens that use the service are loyal. They use it all the time … and we support that.”

Fairhope officials saw the price they get for cardboard fall from a high of about $120 per ton in fiscal year 2016 to $35 last year. Although prices have recovered somewhat from that basement, they remain well below their peak.

Public Works Director Richard Johnson said prices have tumbled for paper and plastics, as well. Instead of making $15 per ton selling to ECUA, the city now pays the utility $2. The price Fairhope pays some other companies ranges as high as $5 per ton.

Johnson said that in addition to China, the market locally has been buffeted by low oil prices, which historically drive down demand for recycled products. Also playing a role is the closing of a pair of local recycling processing companies – Tarpon Paper in Loxley and Seymour & Associates in Mobile went out of business.

The upshot is that even after phasing in a $3 monthly fee increase for trash and recycling pickup, the city still operates the recycling program at a deficit.

Saving landfill space

But Johnson argues it is an important service, not a business designed to make a profit. And there are other considerations, he says. Anything that is not recycled ends up in Baldwin County’s Magnolia Landfill – at a cost of $30 per ton.

“Understand, you know, solid waste is going to be collected by the city for every resident and every business in the city. And whether that solid waste is in the garbage stream or the recycle stream, that cost of collection is always gonna be there,” he said. “So, if we can get material that can be recycled moved from one stream to another, it didn’t cost us anymore because we would have had to collect it and process it.”

Baldwin County, which sells materials collected from 30 drop-off locations throughout the county to recycling processors, also has seen prices plummet – especially for plastics and paper.

After recycling 166 tons of plastic dropped off at 30 collection locations throughout Baldwin County, officials say they recycled only 31 tons and 2017 and 26 tons last year. The price per ton dropped from $39.42 per ton in 2017 to $30 per ton last year.

The market for cardboard has held up a little better. But even for that commodity, prices have fallen by more than half since 2017 – dropping from $149.90 per ton to $70 per ton. So far this year, the county hasn’t recycled any plastic products at all.

Terri Graham, the Baldwin development and environmental director, said the county sells recyclables to processing companies like Wise Recycling in Mobile and WestRock Recycling in Georgia.  

“It’s hard to market the material in a market like it is,” she said. “The service isn’t free; that’s for sure.”

Graham said the county has the luxury of letting recyclables stack up to ride out down markets.

“Fortunately, we do have a lot of space, so we can store it to the level we need to,” she said.

Noel Hand, assistant public works director in Gulf Shores, said his city also sells directly to processors. He said larger cities have had a bigger problem adjusting.

“We’re able to get rid of everything that we get, but we’re a smaller market,” he said.

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