Recycling costs add up as prices dip

KNWA

As the value of recyclables drops, economists question the benefits.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — Recycling can have a number of benefits. It gives items a second life while saving some valuable landfill space. But it comes at a hefty price.

Once a week, recycling trucks roar down Fayetteville streets. You’ve recycled, but at what cost?

We asked Fayetteville environmental director, Peter Nierengarten.

“Recycling is more expensive to collect than trash because of the way we collect. It is more labor-intensive,” he said.

The City of Fayetteville sorts your items curbside and then brings it all back here to be bailed and sold.

“All of the revenues that are collected from rates and the sale of recyclables go into help offset the cost associated with operations,” Nierengarten said.

Through two quarters, 3,144 tons of recyclables have been collected in Fayetteville.

Those costs for Fayetteville add up to more than $2.6 million for recycling alone, according to the 2019 operating budget. For the first half of the year, it collected 3,100 tons of recyclables. But the city gets some of that money back.

All of the material the city collects is worth thousands of dollars. The city says that is one of the biggest differences between weighing the costs of recycling versus waste. Some recycled items used to bring in about $100 a ton. Meanwhile, it costs about $50 a ton to dump in the landfill.

Even so, some economists like Duke University professor Michael Munger, are concerned about other costs.

“By expensive, I don’t mean money. I mean the use of diesel fuel and gasoline fuel to power trucks that harm the environment,” Munger explained.

The markets that buy Fayetteville Recyclables

He is talking about environmental costs. You clean your recyclables with warm water, a truck takes it to the recycling center and then more trucks take the materials all over the country. Munger says all of the emissions created from that process are worse on the environment than simply throwing them away, at least for some items.

“Aluminum cans should almost always be recycled,” Munger said.

That is because of the amount of energy it takes to make new aluminum. He also said he would never recycle glass. Other items depend on the economies of scale.

“If you can get clean recyclables at scale, it always makes sense to recycle,” he said.

Then there is the question of how much the materials are worth.

“I think we should look at the prices. Economists are always going to tell you to look at prices,” Munger said.

Prices are significantly down. That is in part because China no longer buys most recyclables and now the market is flooded with supplies.

In 2018, the Benton County Solid Waste District brought in more than $106,000 from the sale of recyclables. This year, it’s expecting $75,000 in sales.

Benton County Solid Waste District pricing changes

That is because some prices are plummeting. A ton of cardboard last year was worth $105. This year, it’s worth $40.

“It’s certainly affected the economics of recycling and the cost recovery for the commodities that we collect, process, bail and then re-sell,” Nierengarten said.

But, it does not make a lot of sense for the city to constantly change its recycling habits based on the market.

“As you try to design a program that is sustainable through peaks and valleys of markets, you can’t untrain and retrain your customer base every time your markets change,” Nierengarten said.

So it will weather the storm, hoping those markets rebound.

We mentioned how important scale is to the cost of recycling.
The city has long-term plans to try and eventually double the amount that is recycled.

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