Not even Pitkin County recycling immune from slump
December 14, 2008
ASPEN ” Even recycling programs are down in the dumps because of the national economic crisis.
The prices paid for recycled materials plummeted in recent months as the global economy slowed and demand for scrap, paper and other materials disappeared.
“I’m hoping the markets come back in the spring and we’re not bleeding so much,” said Chris Hoofnagle, solid waste and recycling manager at the Pitkin County Landfill. The recycling staff is still collecting materials and shipping them off to buyers, said Hoofnagle, but it is sinking more money into the program. Shipping costs were higher for most of this year because of higher fuel prices. And the prices paid for recycled materials dropped last summer at what Hoofnagle labeled an “alarming” speed.
Recycled newsprint and cardboard, for example, fetched $120 per ton last year. Now they command $40 per ton.
Co-mingled containers of glass, plastic and aluminum went from $50 per ton to “zip,” Hoofnagle said.
Steel was at $300 per ton last year but has sagged to $60 per ton.
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Pitkin County shipped more than 5,500 tons of recycled materials in 2007. The sale of those materials raised $350,000. The amount of recycled materials shipped will increase this year, but the revenues will drop to about half of that collected in 2007, Hoofnagle estimated. And for 2009, he is projecting that revenues will only be about $100,000 for the commodities.
Falling revenues mean greater subsidies for the recycling program. Hoofnagle stressed that recycling isn’t supported by taxpayers. The landfill is an enterprise fund.
That means recycling is subsidized by fees collected for dumping garbage and other money-making programs. That subsidy has been justified, in part, because keeping recycled materials from being buried with trash extends the life of the landfill. Plus, it’s the ecologically friendly thing to do.
But Hoofnagle said falling prices might force tough decisions about the recycling program ” like adjusting what gets collected and how the program is funded. For example, there was never much of a demand for glass, even when the recycle market was strong. Pitkin County ships glass to Denver but receives little or no money for it. If shipping costs continue to climb and there is no payment for glass, it might require a change in direction.
“Economically it’s a no-brainer,” Hoofnagle said. That doesn’t necessarily mean Pitkin County would stop collecting glass. People are used to recycling it, he said, so alternative markets and uses might have to be found.
National media have run numerous stories recently about how recycling programs are scaling back because of sagging prices. The Associated Press reported recently that haulers in Oregon and Nevada are now getting paid nothing and, in some cases, being forced to pay brokers to accept their materials.
Recycling programs in other parts of the country are burying some of their recyclable materials in landfills or stockpiling them in hopes for higher prices in the future. Hoofnagle said Pitkin County won’t bury materials, and stockpiling isn’t a very viable option. Hopefully, the county’s brokers, mostly located in Denver, will continue to accept materials without requiring the county to pay.
If the revenue stream continues to shrink and expenses continue to climb, Hoofnagle said he will need direction from the county commissioners on how to proceed. Some other governments rely on dedicated sales or property taxes, or user fees to fund their recycling programs.
Waste haulers in the Roaring Fork Valley charge customers a nominal fee for picking up recycled materials. Waste Solutions, for example, typically charges residential customers between $2 and $5 per month for pick-up. Wally Graham, owner of the five-year-old company, has been involved in recycling efforts in the valley since the early 1990s. As a trash hauler, he’s continued to encourage people to keep materials out of the waste stream.
“We’re just getting people to recycle,” he said.
One key is service levels. He increased the frequency of picking up cardboard in Aspen’s commercial core and businesses have responded. His firm picks up a truckful of cardboard in the valley every day, with most of it coming from Aspen.
Graham said he hopes that falling prices don’t derail the momentum the valley has with recycling efforts. Hoffnagle shares that concern.
“We’re really nervous,” Hoofnagle said.