by Sarah Squires
Recycling prices have plummeted over the last several months in a crash that’s mimicked the economy, forcing some parts of the country to take a hard look at programs aimed at keeping reusable stuff out of the dump.
Winona County is feeling some of that pinch, but is faring pretty well because the program involves a cleaner sorting process than most, said Anne Morse, Environmental Specialist with the county.
Prices for some materials have dropped as much as 90 percent over prices from earlier this year, with tin bringing in an average of $5 per ton, down from over $300. But Morse said that Winona County is bringing in about $3,000 each month from its program, down from about $9,000 a month earlier this year.
“It’s interesting because these materials are definitely commodities and they follow the commodity cycle,” said Morse. “So they are very sensitive to the market.”
One of the reasons Winona County is still seeing revenue through its contractor Veolia Environmental Services, said Morse, is because it still separates materials for a cleaner load, which makes for an easier, more profitable sell. “The big, big problem with some collectors is that they are really promoting what’s called ‘single stream [recycling],’ where all the materials go together. The big downside to that is that it’s very difficult to get clean uncontaminated [paper] fiber without glass shards,” said Morse. Those paper fibers are one of the materials that is still selling, said Morse. “There are definitely places where materials are just sitting and not moving, but cleaner materials are still moving.”
Morse said she’s happy that the county resisted the push to the “single stream” method and continued the sorted program, which has helped keep the program bringing in some money. “We’ve discouraged it because of exactly this situation,” she said. “It reduces options when material itself loses value.”
The program is funded using the revenue generated from the materials along with the $13 per parcel fee that appears on property taxes each year, and money brought in from the surcharge on garbage bills, which is also used to fund other programs.
Minnesota state law prohibits materials collected for recycling to be placed in landfills. That coupled with falling prices has prompted some companies to stockpile materials in hopes that the market will improve.
But the cleaner, sorted materials collected in Winona County are at least not taking quite as big a blow, said Morse. “Before this hit we were seeing values higher than we’ve ever seen before,” she said. “But the good news is that we’re still getting revenue. We feel lucky.”
new on the horizon
Morse said that alongside the recycling dip, new Minnesota regulations have pushed manufacturers to make products that are easier, and less expensive, to recycle.
Called “Product Stewardship for E-Waste,” the program forces companies which sell computer monitors and televisions in the state to recycle them for free. In its first year, companies had to recover the equivalent of 60 percent by weight of the electronic devices sold in the state. Next year, they’ll have to recycle 80 percent.
Morse said that the program has been driven by county recyclers who recognized that dealing with electronic waste, or e-waste, was not something they could handle.
But what has happened, said Morse, is that manufacturers have become more aware of the difficulties in recycling their products, and are beginning to change because of it. Noticed how lightweight some devices seem today compared to a few years ago? That’s not all.
Before, Morse said that some electronics used more than 100 types of plastic in one device, making it a pretty big chore to break down. “When manufacturers have a share in recycling, they also then understand the value of making that product more easily recyclable,” she said. “They literally said, ‘oh my gosh, if we have to take these products apart we should probably use fewer types of plastic,’” said Morse, adding that some devices have reduced the different types of plastic down to about a dozen. “Until they had the responsibility to recycle it, it didn’t matter as much to them,” she said.
This year, the program was met with a big response from consumers, with Winona County hitting its 60 percent target figure in November. Eligible e-waste isn’t being taken for free until Jan. 1 when the program starts fresh, so Morse said it’s best to hang on to those products until then.
Morse called the program “groundbreaking” and said that it was a silver lining in a year where recycling is a bit bleak. “It’s been fun to see this move from concept to discussion to developing programs to this last year, actually seeing those new programs hit the ground,” she said. “That’s been really interesting, watching other areas work on similar programs for e-waste. It’s been fun to lead on that.”