Government and Sustainability

Recycling service costs could rise in Kent County

Charges for haulers increasing from $35 per ton to $65 per ton in 2019.

October 19, 2018
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Kent DPW Recycling
Residents in the city of Grand Rapids probably won’t get hit with increased recycling fees, at least initially. Photo by Justin Dawes

Some Kent County residents soon may begin paying more for recycling service.

Starting Jan. 2, the charge for waste haulers to drop recyclables at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center will increase from $35 per ton to $65 per ton.

The center utilizes a complex system of conveyor belts, magnets, separators and 25 workers to process nearly 35,000 tons of recyclable material each year that would otherwise end up in a landfill or waste to energy facility.

Revenue comes from two areas: selling recyclable materials and charges to waste haulers.

Due to declining global commodity prices for recyclables, this charge increase is necessary to supplement the lost profit, according to Darwin Baas, Kent County Department of Public Works director.

Once China ceased accepting nearly all recyclable materials about a year ago, the result has been an oversupply of those materials in the domestic market.

The Kent County DPW wasn’t sending recyclables to foreign markets but still was hit by the decreased prices.

China annually had been accepting 200,000 tons of mixed paper, which makes up the majority of recycled materials. Baas said the DPW had sold its mixed paper to a plant in Indiana for about $75 per ton. Now, that price is $0 around the country.

With about eight 42,000-pound truckloads of mixed paper collected by the DPW each week, that’s a loss of about $655,200 annually, which Baas said is about 60 to 70 percent of the revenue stream.

Private waste haulers likely will need to increase costs in services provided as a result, Baas said.

Tonia Olson, senior director of market development and governmental relations for Granger Waste Services, agreed the change typically will result in increased costs of services overall, though she said Granger has not yet fully determined its plans.

Representatives from Republic Services could not be reached for comment at press time.

The city of Grand Rapids, which offers residents free recycling pickup, will be able to absorb this cost and maintain the free service, according to Grand Rapids Public Works Director James Hurt.

He said the department was expecting this increase to happen and will be able to budget accordingly.

Hurt said the program’s current budget of $3.5 million is covered by part of a millage that generates $6.5 million. With the millage and increased property taxes this year, he said there are enough funds generated to cover the additional costs.

The total increased annual cost of using the Kent County facility will be $330,000 for the city.

The city picks up 11,000 tons of recycling per year from 56,000 customers.

Hurt is not expecting another increase any time soon, though if that happens, he said officials will need to discuss how to pay for it, which could include a millage increase.

“The question is how much longer can we continue to absorb the cost without a fee increase or tax increase,” Hurt said.

Baas said there is concern about whether customers of private companies will be willing to pay more for recycling.

He said he is suggesting haulers combine trash and recycling pickup services into one service for a single fee. Haulers traditionally have built their revenue streams around trash pickup, but Baas suggested society might be open to that change.

Hurt knows this is a concern, which is why he said Grand Rapids leadership is dedicated to providing the free recycling service.

“We’re a strong recycling community, which is why we’ve wanted to avoid asking customers for additional dollars,” he said.

In the meantime, Baas said the industry will have to wait and see how the market deals with mixed paper and other materials.

While he would prefer all paper waste is turned into more paper, he said there could be other uses, such as converting to energy. He said the coming sustainable business park could bring a company on-site that can deal with it.

“We know in time it will improve, but we don’t know how long it will take and what it will look like,” Baas said.

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