Shrinking margins, higher costs could limit access to recycling in West Michigan

BY Sunday, May 12, 2019 08:09pm

The closure of two recycling drop-off locations in West Michigan highlights the need for the industry to focus on operational efficiency at a time when margins are shrinking.

But recycling advocates say the loss of access stemming from the two closures could act as a deterrent in the push to increase Michigan’s recycling rate, which is about 15 percent and ranks among the bottom of all U.S. states.

Both the Kent County Department of Public Works and Republic Services Inc. cited operational efficiency as among the drivers of recent or impending closures of recycling drop-off sites around the region.

For Kent County, which plans to close its recycling drop-off station in Kentwood on June 30, the move comes as more residents have access to curbside recycling, which is a more efficient way to collect the materials.

“There’s a much more efficient way to collect this type of material, and that is by waste haulers that are picking it up from individual homes instead of people driving to the facility,” said Kristen Wieland, communications and marketing manager for the Kent County Department of Public Works. “Those things combined have created an operational cost that we evaluated and determined was too much to continue.”

The unmanned station is “abused to the point where 50 percent of the material requires disposal,” Wieland said. Moreover, the Kentwood facility lacks a compactor, meaning the county must transport a “light load” to the Kent County Recycling & Education Center on the west side of Grand Rapids for processing.

As such, the county incurs staff, fuel and truck maintenance costs for the 24-mile round trip, “and not only that, but the environmental impacts of doing that,” Wieland said.

Meanwhile, Republic Services opted to close its Muskegon site at the end of February after acquiring a larger facility in Holland, according to a spokesperson, who noted it was redundant to continue operations at both locations.

To Dan Schoonmaker, the executive director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the closures are concerning, even though he understands the economics of the decisions.

“Just about any of (the drop-off centers) are going to be in a challenging environment now,” Schoonmaker said. “Anywhere out in the rural communities is going to be particularly challenging. They’re going to start pulling those facilities back.”

The ultimate consequence with fewer recycling centers is that people will recycle less as it becomes less convenient, Schoonmaker said.

Shifting policy

While the planned closures follow a move by China to ban imports of recycled materials from other nations, both operators say the so-called National Sword Policy had no effect on their decisions. China has been the largest consumer of recyclable materials generated in the U.S., and the country consumed more than 50 percent of the world’s recycled paper and plastic in 2016.

Republic Services sold about 30 percent of its recyclables to China, but that’s now down to less than 1 percent, as it shifted to other domestic or international markets, according to a spokesperson.

Still, China’s policy likely indirectly affected both locations, Schoonmaker said. As the margins on recycled materials get squeezed, Schoonmaker thinks more operators will continue to reduce recycling drop-off stations.

In particular, he cites increasing processing costs to meet the stricter quality standards to be able to send the materials to China as well as the declining value of some recyclables. The combination of factors will continue to pose challenges for recycling operations to cover their costs.

“(R)ecyclers are working to make their operations more efficient and impactful (by) reducing drop-off sites, limiting the materials they take, addressing contamination,” Schoonmaker said in a follow-up email. “They are focusing on where they are best able to find and offer value, which can cause inconveniences and cost increases for businesses and citizens. This is challenging businesses and people have to do things differently and sometimes pay more to keep recycling.”

Controlling costs

Kent County’s Kentwood facility took in 904 tons of material in 2018, a fraction of the estimated 20,091 tons that would be collected at full participation, and not counting the portion of the recyclables that needed to be discarded, according to Weiland.

Wieland did note that curbside recycling has improved since the Kentwood facility first opened in 2007. Some haulers are serving multifamily complexes in Kentwood with single-stream recycling.

“In most cases, if people stop recycling because of the closure of the Kentwood recycling station, it is because they choose not to participate in curbside recycling, or their property manager has not yet elected to add on-site recycling at their apartment or condo complex,” Wieland said. “We’re working with property managers to improve the latter.”

As well, the county can better control its costs at the North Kent Recycling & Waste Center near Rockford and at the Grand Rapids center because those sites have more infrastructure to handle the materials, Wieland said, citing the lack of a compactor in Kentwood.

Schoonmaker with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum thinks that processing infrastructure will be key to keeping various recycling sites open in the future.

“As far as having a more remote facility where they’re not doing operations, it would surprise me if any recycler is going to do that on their own behest,” he said.

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