Pay As You Throw and the Rising Cost of Recycling

Pay As You Throw wasn’t so bad, now was it? All you have to do is spend a few extra hours (and/or dollars) a week on your trash and voila! It’s trash day and out to the curb it goes, in multiple assorted bins, to be sure, but at least it’s gone and that’s what matters. End of story, right?

Oh, how we wish. Unfortunately, now that we’re all composting, recycling, and reducing our landfill waste to little piles of plastic and metal oddments, we have a new problem. Curbside recycling is not profitable. It doesn’t even pay for itself. In many places, including Brattleboro, the recycling companies have to be propped up financially by the municipalities, costing taxpayers money (again).

What’s a tax-averse taxpayer to do to get out of this increasingly expensive waste stream? That’s a very good question. Costs will continue to rise unless we stop generating waste, which in the current world, is hard to do. For starters, manufacturers and retailers have to package goods in something, usually cardboard or plastic. Even the co-op supplies plastic baggies for their bulk food products. All these packages–recyclable and non–end up as solid waste whether we like it or not.

So what happened to the promise of recycling? A lot of things, in fact. The falling price of oil made a big dent in the price for raw plastics as virgin plastic got more affordable –suddenly all those soda and water bottles got more expensive to dispose of. Meanwhile, no one seems to want paper or glass, and the price for aluminum derived from cans has been hurt by whatever it is that caused Americans to suddenly need fewer cheap Chinese goods.

Solid waste is tough. We don’t want it around, and now the people who were taking it from us don’t want it either, or at least not at the same prices as before. What will we do?

Frankly, I think we’ll adjust, as we always do; in this case, through a combination of cost-saving legislation (making stores take back their packaging and/or dead products), capitalism (entrepreneurs figuring out how to make real money off of recycled goods), and changes to industry practice (decreasing packaging, for example, which is already happening). There might also be changes in habits.

Back when I was a kid, I spent a lot of summers in Fall River, “the town that time forgot,” and they had a requirement that people “separate their trash.” This would have been the 1960s. My grandmother had a buried compost bucket that went out to the curb once a week, as well as a single rubbish bin for trash. In addition, my grandfather burned a lot of stuff – leaves for sure, but also paper and sometimes other things too. Not saying this is good, but it was pretty common then.

As for new goods coming in, the family used refillable milk bottles from the milkman as well as refilled soda and beer bottles (all of which were returned each time we bought more). Some dry goods like chips and pretzels were purchased in bulk and stored in large, refillable bins. Almost everything that was edible came wrapped in paper (meat, cheese, Higson’s fish and chips, etc.) or stowed in paper boxes tied with string (donuts, cupcakes, French meat pies).

Further reducing their “waste stream,” my grandparents saved anything of marginal value. My brother and I inherited large tins of buttons and bottle after bottle of recycled hardware from my grandmother and grandfather respectively. They didn’t have much, and a lot of what they had they’d made themselves or were saving to make something else from later. It was truly a different world.

I was from the city by then, and thought these practices quaint. Now I wonder if we might some day end up going back to them. The reusable plastic container on my drainboard, filled with compostable vegetable matter, reminds me of the one my grandmother had by her sink. I too have bottles and jars of things I’m saving, just in case. I would be more than happy to go back to buying local brew or local soda out of reusable bottles (although I don’t see that one coming any time soon). We’re actively looking at store packaging now in a way we hadn’t before. Can we buy all our meat at the meat counter (and not out of the case where they put it in plastic) without going broke? These questions remain to be answered.

The problems that afflict bigger recycling operations aren’t as much in evidence here in Brattleboro because we already have curbside composting and because we mostly sort our recycling bins. Only plastic and glass are co-mingled. In bigger places, single stream has caused huge problems as sorting becomes an expensive nightmare and Chinese trash buyers get pickier about what they’ll take. But the problem of low prices for recyclables is affecting everyone, and Windham Solid Waste Management (our solid waste company) has complained in the past about low prices, one reason Brattleboro’s share of paying for them has gone up in recent years. Unless the recycling market turns around, it’s likely that our costs to support the program will continue to rise. In fact, the Windham Solid Waste Management District (our recycling partners) all but say it in Brattleboro’s 2014 annual report:

“Due to a stagnant world economy, both the volume and value of the recyclable materials collected has decreased over the past two years, necessitating a 9 percent increase in the assessments to the member towns for FY 2015. ” They go on to say that “the increase was contained” to just 5.6 per-cent in FY16, “despite additional educational program requirements of Act 148.” Does that sound like they might be hinting at a 5% or higher increase annually? Likely so if current conditions hold.

There is no question that reducing our trash is a good thing. The less junk in landfills, the better. But where there’s waste, there’s cost, and barring some miracle plan to permaculture our way out of this, we’re going to be paying for waste disposal one way or another. So by all means, feel virtuous about your composting and recycling (I do!) but don’t be surprised if the question of solid waste and its transmutation comes up again…

Further reference:

Washington Post, June 20, 2015

Recycling in America: In the Bin

Brattleboro’s 2014 Annual Report, WSWMD report

Comments | 15

  • I do a fair amount of my

    I do a fair amount of my purchasing on line because I can’t drive any longer and Brattleboro doesn’t always have everything I need. Mostly I do heavier things; cases of pet food; 40 lb. bags of cat litter, etc. But, I sometimes get things for my grandson and clothes for myself. I spend a lot of time looking for online businesses that are committed to conscientous packaging. It’s not easy to find them and I’ve stood in my dining room many times appalled at the amount of styrofoam pellets (my nemesis!) that a company can fit into one box with one small purchased item. Much like tracking down who actually owns particular companies and what their politics are like- trying to buy from “green” companies who use minimal or no packaging is an almost full time job. And, sometimes even those businesses disappoint -with an over sized box or a dozen sheets of bubble wrap. I often buy meat from the actual “meat” counter to avoid that plastic/foam wrapping -even though It’s more expensive. I think your post is dead on – we are pricing our recycling dreams right out of existence. Maybe we should just all stop buying so much stuff…

  • Thank you

    Thanks for this well written and timely piece Lise, as I was dealing with a fridge that did not fair well after Sunday’s power outage, I was thoroughly annoyed with the amount of packaging I had to deal with–open, and sort into its appropriate bins. I am going to start looking at buying meat at the counter- the Styrofoam with that nightmarish pad…UGH! It is tricky with two in diapers to not have packaging, but I have got to try something!

  • Boxes

    I don’t remember milk trucks delivering bottles, but I do remember the sight of the Charles Chips truck coming down the street, refilling our neighbor’s tins with chips and pretzels.

    For high-end goods, things used to come in well-made cases. There were many wooden boxes used, with felt inside and specially-shaped compartments to hold whatever technological gizmo you had. Microscopes, slide rules, instruments, tools, typewriters and so on had packaging that was useful as long-term storage.

    I still have a velvet-lined and covered case with a locking mechanism that my great, great-relatives used to hold a spoon and knife. It still holds them.

  • Styrofoam on MeatIf you buy

    Styrofoam on Meat
    If you buy your meat at North End Butchers you just get brown paper wrap, no styrofoam trays in sight, it’s wrapped right before your eyes. And is totally fresh and of great quality. Those trays scare me, must be something not healthy about them besides the fact that they allow the meat to sit for days on a shelf. I suppose you could buy your meat from the butcher counters at the groceries but I prefer the quality at North End and would rather have a little of an excellent product than a lot of a lesser quality. At any rate, so far I’m finding we actually have less trash than I thought but it is garden season which does cut down on packaging. Let’s see how this goes over the winter.

  • Very well written and researched -- ibrattleboro at its best!


    I commend you on your article, Lise. You should send it to the Refomer and The Commons (or give me permission to do so on your behalf).

    All you say is true, but one thing we have going for us in Brattleboro (and Vermont / New England) is the very high tipping fee for trash — $105/ton. In some parts of the country the tipping fee is closer to $50-$70/ton and because of the depressed recycling market it costs MORE to recycle than to throw it away! In Vermont there is still a savings for the tons recycyled/composted over the tons landfilled, but the monetary benefit is shrinking.

    I encourage all ibrattleboro readers to speak to Hannaford, Price Chopper and BFC managers and encourage them to offer butcher paper packaging at their deli counters (sandwich meat / cheese / etc.). The butcher paper can go in the curbside compost! It could be offered as, “Paper or plastic?” to each customer. Even if they charged 5 or 10 cents for the butcher paper I think many curbside composters choose paper over plastic.

    Moss Kahler

    Brattleboro Recycling Coordinator

    • little things add up

      I’ve already suggested it to Hannaford, to use their meat counter to sell some regular (non-sauced, prepped) meats, and wrap them in paper. They didn’t seem to really understand, but this was a month or two ago. Hopefully others can add to the volume of requests.


      Moss – questions about little things. Where does one put:

      – lint from a dryer?
      – a pile of dust?
      – what comes up in the carpet sweeper/vacuum?


      • Where do I toss my gold?

        Jesus Christ! Grotke, you aren’t throwing away your dryer lint, are you? What a waste!
        Dryer lint can be saved and used for stuffing anything from throw pillows to voodoo dolls, added to homemade paper to give it tear resistance, twisted around little sticks to make organic q-tips… the uses are endless.

        • recycled lint products

          I’m trying not to throw it out!

          Perhaps we could have different colored (and priced) containers for different lints – dryer, belly button, etc.

          Perhaps there is a town-wide art project in this.

          • Hmmmm...

            There is an NEA grant currently being offered, you know….. just saying….

          • Lint Art

            Google “dryer lint clay” if you want to see some fancy art projects.

      • PriceChopper has a pretty

        PriceChopper has a pretty good “butcher” type meat counter where you can get different cuts of meat; have things cut to your order and they all are wrapped in brown butcher paper. If I’m buying meat (which I don’t eat a lot of) I buy it there or – if I’m feeling a little extravagant- from the North End butchers. There’s also a great butcher shop in Keene -just down the road from Chesire Medical – called “Paul’s Best” ( I think) and their meat is cut to order and comes wrapped in paper.(they also have incredibly delicious garlic cheese rolls but I digress…)

      • Chris, Dryer lint -- compost


        Dryer lint — compost is OK

        Vacuum cleaner contents — trash only

        a pile of dust — not compost; trash or just toss off your back porch!


  • plasma gasification

    There may be a technological solution that turns the waste into atoms which can then be used in various ways (clean burning syngas, recoverable metals). It’s currently being used primarily for hazardous waste disposal, but test plants have been built that handle consumer waste streams, and I think commercial systems are now available. No sorting required, quite clean, the energy it produces pays for the system, and it can handle hazardous waste including electronics (but probably not big appliances unless they were first shredded):

    The plasma plants have to be fairly large though to maintain a hot enough plasma, so in Vermont a plant would probably have to serve most of the state (and maybe some of NY) to get enough waste to keep a plant running. Thus it’s a big project and would require a lot of work to enable, and would put current waste disposal companies out of business.

    • Plasma

      A plasma plant might not have to be that large. The wikipedia article above mentions the Navy using them aboard ships.

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