The fee the city of Atlanta charges its customers for curbside recycling services could go up as early as March as it deals with the news that the rate its private contractor charges has tripled.
At a November Atlanta City Council utilities committee meeting, the city’s public works department announced the rate the contractor, Conyers-based Pratt Industries, charged Atlanta rose from about $25 per ton to about $75.
“Turns out the contract the administration had negotiated with the recycling vendor included language essentially allowing the vendor to raise prices,” said District 7 Councilman Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead and was a utilities committee member in 2019 and is again this year. “So that triggered a lot of consternation and that triggers a lot of questions (about) ‘How did we arrive at this condition?’ The market for recyclables has been weak for some years now, glass particularly.”
Everyone the Neighbor interviewed for this article said the main reason for the increase in costs to the city is China’s National Sword policy, in which it stopped accepting millions of tons of mixed and sometimes contaminated recyclables starting Jan. 1, 2018. Also, the amount of money the city gets for recycling some materials is not as much as it used to be.
According to a January 2019 article on the Resource Recycling website, Chinese companies imported nearly 12.6 billion pounds of scrap plastic in 2017, but only 110 million pounds the following year, a 99.1% decrease. Those companies also imported 33.8% less paper/recovered fiber in 2018 (18.8 million short tons) compared to the previous year (28.4 million).
“You suddenly have vendors who have all this material on their hands that are of very little value to them,” Shook said. “So it’s a (tough) situation. It costs significantly more per ton to haul away recyclables than to landfill them.”
A spokesperson for the city’s department of public works, which handles recycling, said, “As a result, the recycling market across the country has experienced increasing processing fees ranging from $65 a ton to $85 a ton. The regional fee in the state of Georgia is currently averaging around $70 a ton.”
The city has not announced any plans to possibly raise recycling service rates for its customers, but that could change in March, when a solid waste fee study the council approved in November is expected to be completed. The study includes a look at Atlanta’s recycling program.
District 8 Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who chaired the utilities committee in 2019 and remains on the committee this year, said he was disappointed but not surprised with the news of Pratt’s rate increase, adding it’s a nationwide issue.
“The city used to get a rebate for delivering its recycling and now it’s costing us $75 a ton to process, and so anytime you have that negative financial implication, that’s a (problem),” he said.
Of a possible customer rate increase, Matzigkeit said despite not chairing the utilities committee this year (Natalyn Archibong is the 2020 chair), he plans to “see this thing through.”
“My mantra is … people need to pay for the services they receive and need to pay a competitive rate,” he said. “I’m going to see that that happens, not a penny more, not a penny less. Competitive. That does not necessarily mean increasing but it may mean increasing.”
District 1 Councilwoman Carla Smith, a longtime recycling advocate, was a member of the utilities committee in 2019 but not this year. She said recycling can be a rollercoaster business.
“Recycling is a lot like playing the stock market,” Smith said. “Different materials’ costs to recycle or (the amount) getting paid to recycle go up and down. Back in the early 2000s, we were getting money for paper. They were paying us per ton of paper. Now we’re having problem recycling paper and have to pay them for it. The same thing (is happening) with glass. No one is buying glass, so we have to pay to get it recycled.”
Smith also said contractors are having problems with single-stream contamination, meaning either items not currently recycled through the city’s service, such as glass, or items like paper or plastic that have food waste on them are causing problems.
“The glass goes in with the single stream, so those poor people that are pulling those things out on the conveyor belt at the shop get their hands cut and we have (to pay for) workman’s comp (insurance). What I understand is at the end of that conveyor belt, all the glass falls off and goes to the landfill and they have to pay landfill tipping fees for that.
“So the recycling (contractor fee increase), it really didn’t shock me because it’s almost like we’ve come to a point where a lot of people are now educated on recycling, they’re starting to recycle, but because of our past errors of contaminated recycling, we’re now having to pay for those past sins because China won’t take our stuff anymore.”
At the November meeting, Shook asked if the city could stop offering recycling services and have all those items thrown in the other bin that is marked for regular trash as a way to save the city money. But Colletta Wilson Jacks, an aide to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that’s not possible because the recycling program is staying put.
Shook said he wants the city to have a long-range plan on how to handle Pratt’s increased fees.
“How are we going to pay for this if we have to up the (customers’ individual) recycling fee by 300 percent?” he said. “That’s a pretty aggressive burden, and I can pay for it but some may not be able to.”
Shook also said Pratt’s rate increase will mean the city’s solid waste fund, which runs at a deficit, will need more funds from other departments.
Smith said one solution is to take all recyclables to the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, a nonprofit that has a permanent location in southeast Atlanta and a monthly popup one in Buckhead. Conversely, she and Shook said not recycling everything that can be recycled may be the answer to not raising the customer fees.
“It would be really instinctively hard to put a (plastic) bottle or a tin can in the trash instead of the recycle bin,” he said. “But we have to realize recycling is not an end. It’s a means to an end. The recycling is a way to (dispose of trash). The goal is to be the best possible stewards of the Earth’s resources.”
Said Smith, “When in doubt, just throw it out. I am the biggest recycler, but recycling is getting to be this finicky (business).”
Everett Catts @NeighborEverett