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Derry Transfer Station. Courtesy photo.




Trash or treasure?
New Hampshire grapples with recycling woes

06/21/18



 By Scott Murphy

​smurphy@hippopress.com
 
From half-cleaned food packages to dirty diapers, New Hampshire cities and towns have always had to pick up the slack from residents who throw anything and everything in their recycling bins.  This pass-the-buck mentality has worsened over the past few years and left local municipalities with major headaches and costly bills amid a “market crisis.” 
That’s according to Michael Durfor, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association in Epsom. While several factors have presented challenges to New Hampshire public works departments, Durfor said the major cause of this global recycling crisis is China’s “National Sword” policy. 
 
The “National Sword” problem
In 2017, a complex web of environmental, political and social issues prompted China to crack down on its recycling agreements with other countries. Beijing implemented stricter standards for what recyclables it would accept and began rejecting shipments that failed to meet these new requirements. 
With over 130 million tons of materials recycled in the U.S. annually according to the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, Durfor said China’s new policies have dealt a significant blow to the U.S. recycling pipeline. According to a report from the association, about 30 percent of recyclables collected in the U.S. are exported, with 69 percent of all plastic (other than No. 1 PET) being shipped to China and Hong Kong. The U.S. International Trade Commission reports a similar number for recycled paper, with 60 percent of U.S. exports heading to China. 
“It’s just like a plumbing system,” said Durfor. “If you get a plug somewhere down the line, you’re going to get a backup.”
 
Impact on New Hampshire
Meeting China’s new requirements is proving difficult for New Hampshire cities and towns with single-stream recycling, where residents throw all recyclable items into a single bin that’s later brought to a facility for sorting and the materials are eventually shipped out by the ton. Improper recycling makes it more difficult to separate recyclables into specific categories. This leads to contamination, where two different types of recyclables are accidentally grouped and shipped together or leftover residue from food and chemical containers ruins recycled paper, for example.
“One message we’ve heard again and again from recycling contractors is the issues they have getting good-quality recyclables,” said Todd Moore, administrator for the Solid Waste Management Bureau of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. “Anything that’s not acceptable has to be pulled out, because if it remains in there it devalues the materials they’re trying to sell.”
Contamination is forcing waste facilities to charge more to cover the extra time and labor required for proper sorting.
“Pricing for single-stream has gone through the roof because of increased prices for processing and having to dispose of contaminated product, and as space starts running out in the landfills, the price of municipal solid waste is going to double,” said Durfor. “We’re going to get to a point where we have to choose between paying our teachers and firefighters and paying our trash bill.” 
Higher prices have put pressure on towns like Hooksett with single-stream recycling. According to Diane Boyce, director of the Hooksett Department of Public Works, the town sends its waste trucks to Casella Waste Systems in Allenstown because the facility is in the next town over. 
While Casella’s per-ton cost for recyclables used to be “in the $30s,” Boyce said that price has more than tripled to about $103 per ton due to the heightened strain put on sorting out contaminated product. 
Since Hooksett doesn’t generate any income from recycling, according to Boyce, that rate hike is particularly steep, especially when compared to the town’s $70-per-ton cost for trash. 
“We want to do the right thing and be responsible for the Earth, but budget-wise, we might need to change what we’re doing,” said Boyce. “We have curbside recycling right now, and people keep putting trash in their recycling barrel; some people are even throwing in things like dirty diapers. That’s part of the reason costs are going up so high.” 
 
“Glass is trash”
Hooksett and other municipalities have sought ways to cut costs wherever possible. In March, Hooksett stopped collecting glass for recycling, and Laconia followed suit in May. 
Laconia said “it is not economically viable to recycle glass” in its May 18 newsletter, telling residents to remember “glass is trash.”
In a statement, Hooksett said glass “has always been hard to find markets for but with local glass disposal sites closing down we have no markets at all.” 
On top of that, Boyce said, even the recycling facilities that did accept glass were just disposing of it in landfills. 
“Glass has a lot of weight to it,” said Boyce. “Why would we pay more when we’re being charged by the ton and they’re just throwing it out anyway?” 
Durfor of the NRRA said there are other means of recycling glass that cities and towns should consider, including substituting glass for gravel. He noted that the town of New London has used recycled glass for its road construction projects for decades. 
In a statement released after Laconia’s announcement, the NRRA also said glass is “detrimental for both incinerators and single-stream processing plants and its disposal as waste will only accelerate the loss of landfill capacity.”
 
 
Finding solutions
According to Moore of the state’s Solid Waste Management Bureau, New Hampshire doesn’t have any statewide recycling guidelines. This has forced local municipalities to figure out what might work for their specific city or town. 
Derry was one of the first towns in the state to make recycling mandatory and has had a high participation rate from the start, according to public works director Mike Fowler. 
“I believe we made some good decisions starting in the 1990s to embrace recycling,” said Fowler. “Our residents who drop off are really well-informed about what we’re doing. One of the things we’ve been very lucky with is our product is very clean and we don’t have a lot of contamination.”
Derry opened a new recycling facility in January 2016 with separate bunkers designated for individual recyclables. The facility recycles a variety of materials, including cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum, tin cans, plastics, scrap metals and construction and demolition debris. 
Though market values shift regularly, Fowler said, the town has been able to generate an overall annual revenue between $400,000 and $700,000 from selling recyclables. 
“We look at it not only as a source of revenue, but also as a benefit from not having to throw it in the trash stream,” said Fowler. “Derry recycles about 5,000 tons of materials annually, and there’s a significant cost reduction when you can turn around and sell that instead of throwing it out.” 
Ultimately, Moore said, it comes down to individual residents recycling properly in the first place. 
“When people bring in their recycling or put it out on the curb, they need to understand what’s accepted and not accepted,” he said. “If they haven’t started already, I think we’re going to see cities and towns trying to make sure residents know the guidelines of their specific service provider.” 





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