Government and Sustainability

Kent County recycling is on the rise

Scrap value of plastic reflects fluctuations in global oil prices.

March 7, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Dennis Kmiecik said 99 percent of the waste brought to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center is "residential materials." Photo by Michael Buck

Kent County residents were recycling more than ever in 2013, with the county’s Recycling and Education Center, 977 Wealthy St. SW, Grand Rapids, taking in a record amount of waste in a single stream composed of paper, plastics, glass, cardboard and corrugated paper.

Of more than 30,500 tons of “recyclable” incoming trash, the center was able to process 28,351 tons of recyclables, and sold 25,142 tons of reclaimed materials to vendors, bringing in more than $2.5 million in revenue. 

According to the county, the recycling facility has seen an increase of 7 percent to 10 percent in incoming waste each year since it opened in 2010.

Dennis Kmiecik, solid waste operations director for the Kent County Department of Public Works, said 99 percent of the waste brought to the center is “residential material, things that come out of your kitchen — not your garage, not your kids’ old swing set and things like that — out of your kitchen.”

The single largest type of material is paper fiber, he said, making up about 60 percent of the total by weight. That includes newspapers, junk mail and office papers, cardboard — mainly in the form of cereal boxes, and corrugated boxes.

The rest is steel food cans, pie tins and other aluminum containers — especially cat food cans —plastic bottles and jugs, and 300 or 400 tons of glass bottles and jars each month.

Kmiecik said scrap prices tend to fluctuate monthly, but plastic prices, he said, “just like gasoline, will fluctuate weekly.” Plastic is made from petroleum, the same as gasoline.

In mid-February, scrap plastic from milk jugs was selling for about 38 cents a pound. The thicker plastic jugs of the type that laundry detergent comes in sells for about 25 cents per pound, and clear plastic water bottles range from 18 to 20 cents a pound.

“We get the most of that right now,” said Kmiecik, referring to the ubiquitous plastic water bottles. So many plastic disposable water bottles have clogged American landfills that there are now many municipalities considering banning them or putting a deposit on them — anything to keep them out of the landfills.

Paper prices have been “pretty stable the last three years,” said Kmiecik. Right now it is on the lower end at about $65 per ton. It has been as high as $150 per ton.

“I’d like to see it about $80,” he said, although he added that at $65, the center is at least breaking even with its paper recycling.

“We can live with it,” he said. The county’s goal, after all, is to add as little material as possible to the county landfill.

Metal prices have been “pretty steady,” said Kmiecik, currently averaging an overall scrap value of about $270 a ton. A magnet removes steel objects from the center’s stream of trash, and workers remove more valuable metals such as aluminum and copper by hand.

The recovered aluminum in household waste is considered low-grade by the aluminum industry, so the price the center gets is now about 35 to 38 cents a pound, compared to about $1 per pound for clean aluminum products such as piping or window frames.

Glass is a problem in U.S. recycling today, according to Kmiecik.

“It’s rough on the (processing) equipment because it’s so abrasive, and there’s no real market for it right now,” he said. Most local government recycling facilities either pay to have it hauled away or add it directly to their landfill. 

But Kent County is lucky, said Kmiecik, because it has a deal with a Chicago company that does recycle glass. The cost of shipping it there would cancel out any scrap value, so Kent County gives it to the Chicago firm, which comes and gets it. He said that company separates the glass by colors and it is used to make new glass bottles and containers.

The center had some major mechanical problems last summer when a baler failed. That wiped out three weeks of production and cut expected revenue for the year by about $100,000.

“We run it like a business,” said Kmiecik, adding that when the center loses money, “I don’t get taxpayers’ money to fund it.”

County officials say a combination of two factors apparently has helped increase the volume of trash people send to the facility: one is that more people are interested in being environmentally friendly, and the other is education.

The Kent County Recycling & Education Center is a single-stream process. Previously, county residents who wanted to recycle had to separate paper, plastic, metal and glass, but that is no longer necessary with the center’s state-of-the-art technology. Many more people are willing to recycle if they don’t have to separate their recyclables.

In addition to its main mission of recycling, the Recycling and Education Center has tripled the number of tours it gives to school groups. Kmiecik said about 8,000 people, mainly school groups, came in 2013 to learn more about recycling. 

“They go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned. Awareness has really increased,” he said.

In October, the center added a second shift to accommodate increased demand. Kmiecik said seven people work in the recycling plant, and when all the equipment was new four years ago, just one maintenance person was necessary. Now, a second is needed, so the Kent County Board of Commissioners voted in February to hire an additional maintenance technician.

The county said the second maintenance job will be funded partly by the savings of not having to pay so much in overtime for one maintenance person. The rest will come from the DPW’s solid waste operations, which are self-supporting and not supported by tax revenues.

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