Recycling Markets

from Maine Townsman, June 2004)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

The rush in recycled materials is bringing big bucks into Kittery town coffers.

Every week, a tractor trailer leaves the Materials Recovery Facility with a load of baled cardboard, which these days fetches $2,244 on the open market. Every other week, the town ships a tractor trailer load of baled newspapers, earning the town another $2,090. Less frequently, but just as lucratively the town ships baled metals and plastic. Prices are up 30 percent or more since February.

“It’s nice to see,” said Kittery’s Public Works Director Rick Rossiter, whose three-man recycling center is one of the more sophisticated in the state. “The guys like to see it go for a decent price. They work at it and it’s nice to get decent money for your product.”

By contrast, the boom prices go unnoticed in the tiny York County hill town of Limington, 50 miles north of Kittery. Twice a month, the town’s two “silver bullet” recycling bins are trucked by a private hauler to the municipally-run RWS recycling center in Portland. Month after month, the price never changes.

“We don’t get anything from them,” said Roxanne Herrick, the selectmen’s assistant.

Limington does receive an indirect rebate for its recycled materials, in the form of a fractionally lower tipping fee to burn un-recycled trash at the RWS incinerator, but no one actually calculates the value of Limington’s recyclables, which in yearly tonnage is a little more than Kittery processes in a week.

Two programs, different worlds. Kittery recycles more than 40 percent of all its trash — 1,200 tons a year — and projects to earn $80,000 in income this year. Limington recycles less than 16 percent of its trash — just 37 tons a year — and earns a rebate of undetermined value.

The contrast typifies the uneven progress Maine has made in the decade and a half since the advent of widespread household recycling in Maine. In some towns, recycling is still an alien concept. In other towns, it is practically a religion. Nothing separates the good from the not-so-good like the current spell of high prices for recycled materials, says Hank Tyler of the state’s Office of Waste Management and Recycling.

“Towns that have strong recycling programs in place right now are benefiting handsomely,” said Tyler. “Conversely, if you’re not collecting much, you’re not achieving much benefit. There is a wide spectrum of approaches.”

Tyler keeps close tabs on municipal programs and has developed new ways of charting productivity. (See accompanying chart ranking communities according to tons per capita.) Most towns seem satisfied with modest effort and modest success, he said. Those handful of programs that are extremely productive follow many different strategies for success.

But first some background.

Maine has recently lost ground in its goal of recycling 50 percent of its waste.

The overall rate of recycling (calculated every two years) reached a high-water mark of 41.6 percent in the mid-1990s, but the rate fell in the last two surveys and now stands at 37.3 percent. Reaching the goal has never been made mandatory, and an initial requirement that communities make “reasonable progress” has been eliminated. The compliance date was also pushed back from 1993 to 2003. The state will probably again fall “a little shy” of the 50 percent goal, though the 2003 numbers are still being crunched, says George MacDonald, head of the state’s Office of Waste Management and Recycling. He predicted the compliance date will be pushed back again.

Maine’s declining performance is not due to lack of effort, says MacDonald. He says overall recycling tonnage has remained fairly constant during the past decade at a little more than 90,000 tons, but it has fallen as a percentage because overall trash volumes are rising. Two factors are driving the rise, he said. The home construction and renovation boom is generating a surfeit of junked shingles, pallets, sheet rock, and lumber. In addition, the prevalence of throw-away products and packaging seems to be growing. “We’re going more to a society of convenience,” said MacDonald.

Nobody expects the gravy train to last, but the current spate of high prices is about as good as it gets.

“Prices have been astronomical,” says Steve Consoli, who runs a regional recycling program for 21 greater Portland communities that burn trash at the RWS incinerator in Portland. So good that by the three-quarters mark of the fiscal year, RWS had already met its yearly revenue projection of $900,000 and is on target to realize $1.5 million in recycling income.

It is particularly noteworthy that — with the exception of glass — prices are up across the board. According figures from the Maine Resource Recovery Association: milk-jug plastic hit $420 a ton, last year in the $260-$370 range; newspaper has been fetching $90-95 per ton, up from the 10-year average of $62-63 per ton; and steel cans hit $145 in March, up from $8 ton in March 2002.

High prices lifted Readfield out of a growing financial mess. As recently as January, officials were grappling with a $19,000 deficit in the operation of the transfer station, brought on by unexpected expenses, a backlog of recycled materials, and substandard productivity in the operation of the town’s baler. The town pushed productivity and hired a part-time employee to market materials in a two-bay garage “stacked to the gills.” “I didn’t want to be sitting on $15,000 worth of waste at the end of the fiscal year that could have been sold,” said Town Manager Stefan Pakulski. “Better prices have made a difference ... but we’ve also got better management.”

High prices are bringing out the wheeler-dealer instinct in some town officials. Instead of entrusting their materials to a single broker, they prefer shopping around.

“There’s always a certain few who do it,” said Victor Horton, executive director of Maine Resource Recovery Association, a Bangor-based nonprofit organization that serves as a trade association for more than 200 communities and about 70 recycling centers. Marketing your own is more effort and not necessarily more money, he said. “Some do better, some do worse. Most don’t admit it either way,” he said. Horton said he believes communities benefit more by relying on his expertise and contacts; when prices rise, he tries to pass the profits down the line, he said.

Wayne Ricker, solid waste director in Lisbon, believes marketing his own materials pays off.

“I think so, a little bit. It keeps them working, letting them know this town isn’t locked into them,” he said. He enjoys the exercise. “That’s the fun of the game. I have three different brokers I go to. Keeps everyone on their toes. They know I’m calling the others.”

The high prices are due in large measure to China’s aggressive economic expansion, according to a consensus of opinion. It is particularly noticeable in corrugated cardboard, the material recycled in the biggest volumes in Maine.

China purchased 40-45 percent of all exports of U.S. recycled paper last year and its share is expected to rise to more than 50 percent by the end of 2005, according to David Clapp, who is an expert widely quoted in the trade press and a senior economist at Resource Information Systems Inc. In recent years, at least 10 new papermaking machines have been built in China, six of them built since 1998 by America Chung Nam, according to Mark Arzoumanian, editor in chief of Official Board Market’s “The Yellow Sheet,” which tracks dozens of recycled paper prices each month.

“The Chinese government ... realizes that with 1.3 billion people, there is going to be continuing need for products packaged in folding cartons,” Arzoumanian said. “They’re investing in huge mills.” The demand won’t be steady as China is known to take big gulps of the market then nothing while it digests. “The price sweep is like a roller coaster ride,” he said. “The price will rise in the long-term, but volatility will reign.”

The high prices are only available to those programs well positioned to take advantage of them. Here then is a guide to the ingredients of the best programs in Maine, developed from interviews with a range of people in the recycling business — municipal officials, state officials, and industry experts.

One ingredient in good programs is continued investment in it, says Tyler.

“When I started this job back in 1998, a lot of towns were keeping records on the back of a brown paper shopping bag,” said Tyler. “Now some have computers and scales and they weigh everything.”

In his tenure, Tyler says “selected towns” have made investments in facilities. He mentions by name: Casco and Naples, Readfield, St. George, and Clinton.

Over the years, Kittery has invested close to $1 million in recycling buildings and equipment. “We were fortunate, we got several grants from the state,” said PWD Richard Rossiter. Because the town owns a baler that processes materials into a compact form, the town gets a premium on its paper, plastic and metal. Most recently, the town invested $47,000 in a screener than enables the town to sell compost for $10 a yard to local residents. The town also has enough space to store materials for 8-9 months, enabling the town to time its sales for when prices are up. The three-person operation generates enough income ($80,000) that it is cheaper than disposing of the material as trash ($70,000), according to Rossiter.

“You have to say, we do better than [break even] at this point, prices are so high,” he said.

Many communities have boosted rates by making recycling more convenient through “curbside” collection programs. Instead of requiring residents to drop off materials in separate bins at a landfill or transfer station, residents are given totes and encouraged to separate materials at home and put them out on the curb just like the weekly trash to be picked up by public works crews or a private contractor. Nearly half the people of Maine (97 communities representing 40 percent of the population) is now served by curbside pickup. Some communities have boosted rates further by adopting “pay per bag” systems, in which residents are charged fees for any extra trash they throw away beyond a set amount. Portland boosted its recycling rate from 6-8 percent to more than 40 percent by adopting both curbside and pay per bag. Windham, South Portland, Kennebunk have also boosted rates.

But a curbside program usually only gets you into the respectable range. Some of the very highest rates of recycling are found in communities that retain drop-off recycling. Among them: Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth, Lisbon. If that sounds counter-intuitive, let George MacDonald explain:
“A good curbside program. If you get seven or eight materials, you’re doing a good job. With drop-off, you can have more materials. That’s the beauty of drop-off. And the residents do the sorting,” Lisbon for, example, recycles 22 different kinds of material. But the prize for sheer number of recycled materials may go to Cape Elizabeth: 49 different categories, including gift wrap, books, clothing, stove ash and even “rocks, dirt and sand.”

Peer pressure may also be a factor in high rates at drop-off centers. Lisbon’s Solid Waste Director Wayne Ricker says, “We have a population of 10,000 in this town. Every Saturday we have 500 vehicles come through here. That’s about 600-650 townspeople. When they come here, they look at what their neighbors do and do the same. With curbside, people can just drop it in a black plastic bag and no one sees them.”

In other words peer pressure is more powerful than convenience?

“That’s quite a bit of it,” said Ricker

Educational efforts — to keep recycling on citizens’ minds over time — is another ingredient to success. It helps to have an active solid waste advisory committee as well, says Tyler. “Generally, it takes four or five years to train citizens and businesses in what to do,” he said. Bridgton tries to raise money and awareness by holding regular auctions of a high-value item left at the town’s “re-use shed.” “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said MacDonald. Bath and Brunswick both have recycling mascots that square off in a foul-shooting contests at halftime of Brunswick-Morse basketball games with the winner taking home the “George MacDonald trophy,” whose namesake has connections to both communities.

The importance of education is not lost on Sue Millett, regional sales manager for William Goodman & Sons in Scarborough. Ten percent of Goodman’s business is brokering materials for towns. Millett believes the drop in municipal recycling rates is due in part to less education.

“Out of the people we used to deal with, half the jobs have been cut in education and publication,” said Millett. “With shrinking budgets, I don’t think this is a top priority. And I understand that.”

One of the surest ways to increase recycling rates is to accept commercial waste. It certainly helps to host a ski resort (Carrabasset Valley, Newry) or a printing operation (Wells). But other towns have boosted rates by finding a way to recycle new materials. Bulky waste — such as furniture and demolition debris — has traditionally been ground up and disposed of at great expense at a landfill or incinerator.

Kennebunk saves itself $30,000 a year by recycling nearly all its bulky waste. “We’re recycling about 90 percent of what had been coming in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Christmas tree, a pallet or a piece of furniture. It gets sorted and broken down,” says Town Manager Barry Tibbetts. The town’s five-year contract with Commercial Paving and Recycling in Scarborough costs the town nothing. “We don’t pay a penny,” says Tibbets. He estimates it would cost the town $30,000 to have the 500 tons a year either buried in a landfill or burned at an incinerator. “It’s definitely worth it,” Tibbetts said.

Bath is starting to recycle bulky items that have been dumped at the town’s regional landfill. Assistant Public Works Director Lee Leiner expects to extend the life of the landfill by “two or three years” beyond the current 10-12 year life expectancy. “We try to operate as a business,” Leiner said. “We try to save space for that waste that really needs to be buried.”

Towns with Highest and Lowest Recycling Rates for 2002

1. Newry - 1,457.6 pounds per person
2. Carrabassett Valley - 1,045.2 pounds per person
3. Bar Harbor - 912.8 pounds per person
4. Bath - 564.4 pounds per person
5. North Haven - 545.4 pounds per person
6. Hanover - 471.8 pounds per person
7. Caratunk region - 444.98 pounds per person
8. Cranberry Isles - 437.2 pounds per person
9. Southwest Harbor - 422.8 pounds per person
10. Pittsfield - 409.9 pounds per person

Statewide average - 146.6 pounds per person

305. Mariaville - 20 pounds per person
306. Milford - 19.6 pounds per person
307. Canaan - 17.2 pounds per person
308. Medford - 17 pounds per person
307. Bancroft - 16.8 pounds per person
305. Minot - 15.8 pounds per person
Drew Plantation - 15.8 pounds per person
304. Rome - 15 pounds per person
305. Frankfort - 13.2 pounds per person
306. Limington - 12.6 pounds per person
307. Cornville, Mercer, Chester, Lakeville, Indian Township, Athens, Embden, Princeton - did not report

Source: Maine’s Waste Management and Recycling Program. Data is most recent available