Amid a continuing Chinese ban on recyclables imported from the United States, the future of curbside recycling in the Historic Triangle is looking more expensive.
China announced a ban on certain recyclables from the United States last year and expanded it to include more materials in the spring. In August, China announced a tariff on all scrap imports, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
That has made an impact on the industry.
Last year, the United States exported $5.6 billion, or 31 percent of total American exports, in scrap materials to China. In the first six months of 2018, the United States exported $2.2 billion in scrap to China. That’s a 24 percent decrease from the same time frame last year.
Against that backdrop, local officials have to figure out what to do with a curbside recycling contract between the Virginia Peninsula Public Service Authority and County Waste that expires June 30. The former contracts the latter to collect curbside recycling in James City, Williamsburg and York. The Virginia Peninsulas Public Service Authority collects about 12,000 tons of recyclables annually.
Officials expect a substantial cost increase for the service — jumping from the $1.58 per household per month that localities pay in the current contract to around $6 or more.
That would mean higher budget line items for recycling collection, so localities have had to think about how to provide curbside recycling, or whether to provide it at all.
Though no formal decisions have been made, James City supervisors expressed interest in a user fee to mitigate the cost, while Williamsburg appears to be leaning toward absorbing the increase in its budget. The localities’ governing bodies are expected to consider approval of a recycling contract early next year.
James City estimates curbside recycling will cost $1.8 million in fiscal year 2020. In the fiscal year 2019 budget, the county earmarked $525,767 for the same service, James City General Service Manager Grace Boone said.
The county is exploring a cost-sharing system to mitigate the increased price tag, which is what the James City Board of Supervisors agreed to after a long conversation about potential options at its work session Nov. 27. In the cost-sharing system, the county would pay part of the cost and the citizens who want to recycle would pay part of the cost. What exactly that breakdown looks like wasn’t determined at the meeting.
James City officials also discussed just absorbing the additional $1.3 million in its budget, or pulling the plug on county-sponsored recycling all together. Those ideas were less warmly received, with supervisors concerned about putting the expense on people who don’t have access to recycling or taking away a popular service and the ensuing environmental impact.
Though 25,115 James City households participate in curbside recycling, the service isn’t available everywhere in the county.
“Those are the options so far. We continue to look at other options and educate ourselves on what else is out there,” Boone said.
In Williamsburg, 2,886 households participate in curbside recycling. The city budgeted $62,000 for it in FY 2019.
It’s likely it will cost 3.5 times more to provide curbside recycling in FY 2020, Virginia Peninsulas Public Service Authority executive director Stephen Geissler said.
City Manager Andrew Trivette said he has briefed City Council members individually during the past several months on the topic, likewise weighing a recycling collection fee or a stop to recycling services.
But neither of those seemed viable.
“In evaluating these options it is clear that recycling is an important service to the community and should not be eliminated. The city does not currently have a separate fee for solid waste collection and it would not seem wise to institute a fee for recycling alone,” Trivette said in an email.
That leaves absorbing the increase in the city’s budget, though exactly how the city will shoulder it hasn’t been determined, Trivette said.
More than 18,000 York households participate in curbside recycling. York packages recycling collection with trash collection for a cost to residents of $17.50 per month.
At a York Board of Supervisors meeting in October, public works director Brian Woodward said a shorter term contract could be on the table, which would give the localities flexibility in regard to rates should the market improve. The current contract is for five years. Other options include revenue-sharing and restricting recyclables approved for collection to more lucrative materials.
York supervisors didn’t voice a specific preference regarding that idea at the meeting.
“We’re looking at different options,” Woodward said. “The markets are not what they were a year ago.”
There’s $364,000 in York’s FY 2019 budget to provide curbside recycling services. It hasn’t been determined what it will cost to provide curbside recycling services in FY 2020, York spokeswoman Gail Whittaker wrote in an email.
Woodward said a $6 per household per month contract would make the service close to $1 million more expensive for York.
The authority placed a request for proposals in August for new curbside recycling contracts. It got two responses — one from County Waste and another from Tidewater Fiber — and those proposals are still under review, Geissler said.
Mixed paper has been hardest hit by the ban. It’s also the majority of what people put in their recycling bins. However, some plastic and aluminum items can still be profitable.
“There are really good markets for plastic bottles and jugs and aluminum cans,” Geissler said. “They are able to sell the materials. The big issue is that they aren’t able to sell the materials at the prices they could before.”
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_