The recycling market and Act 148

This is the second of two posts about the Bottle Bill, unclaimed nickels, and universal recycling. Part 1 can be read here.

On July 1, the state of Vermont will ban all recyclable materials from landfills. Under a law called Act 148, everything recyclable is supposed to be kept out of the waste stream.

Hooray, right?

Well yes, but there are issues. (Aren’t there always?) Foremost among them, unsurprisingly, is money. Handling trash will become more expensive post-July 1, especially for trash haulers in smaller, more rural service areas. Haulers can’t impose a charge on recycling, so they’ll have to recoup their costs by raising their tipping fees.

That could induce sticker shock in some places. Tom Moreau of the Chittenden Solid Waste District estimates that some disposal fees could triple under Act 148.

Part of the problem is the additional work and machinery required to separate recyclables from the waste stream. Some haulers are already geared up, but others are not.

Another problem: extremely low prices for most recyclable materials. In an ideal world, waste handlers would make enough revenue from selling recyclables to cover the costs of Act 148 compliance. In the real world, most recyclables are a glut on the market.

One example: CSWD used to sell its paper to a mill in Quebec, but that mill went out of business last fall. “In October we were getting $75 a ton” from the mill, says Moreau. “Now we’re getting $35.” People are using less paper even as more and more paper is being recycled. Demand is down, supply is up.

Glass is also a money-loser. The reason? Energy costs. “There’s only a 5% energy savings in turning old glass into new” as opposed to just making new glass, according to Moreau. Plastic and aluminum are easier to reuse than glass, which came as a surprise to me. (That 5% savings for reusing glass? For aluminum, it’s 95%.)

What’s been a surprise to Moreau is that the markets for metals other than aluminum have collapsed. He’s not sure why, although it’s a fair guess that recycling mandates like Vermont’s are creating an oversupply. Perhaps our reuse technology is lagging behind our ability to recapture materials.

When Act 148 became law, it was assumed that selling recyclables would cover its costs. But according to Moreau, prices have dropped by 30 to 50 percent since then. And experts in the field, Moreau says, predict that “commodity prices are not likely to go up significantly. This is the new normal.”

This is where we get back to the Bottle Bill, and why some would like to repeal it.

Costs of waste handling will go up after July 1. The recyclables market won’t cover those costs. But it would if more aluminum and plastic was going through the solid-waste system instead of being diverted to bottlers and distributors. They get the desirable commodities and make millions per year; waste handlers are stuck with the other stuff.

If waste handlers got the aluminum and plastic, Moreau says, it would cover the additional costs of universal recycling. At the very worst, tipping prices might go up by a small amount.

Which makes the future of the Bottle Bill a lot more debatable. It’s a judgment call, of course; as I said in my previous post, the Bottle Bill does some good things. It’s an extremely effective way to capture reusable material, far more effective even than universal recycling. (Which is never universal — that’s an unattainable ideal.) It’s a way for community groups to fundraise. It cuts down on litter, although that’s less of a factor now that so many beverages are not subject to the Bottle Bill. (Water, tea, juice drinks, energy drinks, etc.)

The system does have a cost; according to Moreau, the price tag for handling all those cans and bottles is about $8.75 million per year. If we folded everything into the waste-handling and recycling system, we’d save that money and we’d pay for universal recycling. Are the social and environmental benefits of the Bottle Bill worth its costs? That’s not as simple a question as it appears.

It would certainly make Tom Moreau’s life easier if there were no Bottle Bill, but he realizes there are factors outside of his purview, and he doesn’t recommend either way. What he would not like to see is an expansion of the Bottle Bill to include uncarbonated beverages; that’d divert even more saleable material away from waste handlers.

In fact, he has a substitute Modest Proposal that he knows isn’t going anywhere: make all glass containers — whether they contained soda or mayonnaise — subject to the Bottle Bill, and exempt aluminum and plastic.

That would take care of our recycling and waste handling problems in one fell swoop. It’d never pass the Legislature — although I am enjoying the mental picture of retail lobbyist Jim Harrison’s face turning purple at the very idea.

There are ways of dealing with all of this. One idea (that would also make Jim Harrison’s face go purple): kill the Bottle Bill and impose a one-penny fee at the producer/distributor level on every disposable container (bottles, jars, boxes, paper or plastic cups), with the proceeds going to waste-handling and recycling.

This whole issue has garnered little public attention so far. Expect that to change, big time, after July 1 — especially in areas that see big hikes in tipping fees. This issue may well rocket to the top of the Legislature’s priority list for 2016. And the Bottle Bill will be front and center in that debate.

2 thoughts on “The recycling market and Act 148

  1. john moyers

    Coca-Cola and McDonalds and Ansheuser-Busch rank among the greatest socialists in history. Dispose-ability is the great profit-boosting strategy of such consumer product businesses, a way of externalizing the cost of selling their products to society generally. Whether or not one uses their products, we all pay the cost of disposing of their packaging. We’ve been habituated into a society of disposable convenience. The solution for the future resides in our past — durable, reusable, refillable and standardized packaging containers will lead to less through-put of virgin raw materials, and so less waste. Also, government action must compel companies to internalize the cost of their for-profit activities — by taxing wasteful single-use packaging, if necessary.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Germany has a nice little solution: manufacturers are responsible for their products cradle-to-grave. Somehow its economy has boomed in spite of this seemingly punishing mandate.

      Actually, the mandate imposed short-term costs on German industry, but in the long run it made them much more competitive. As we enter an age of diminished resources, the Germans have a big head start.


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