Recycling costs, participation pile up for Weber County

Monday , February 06, 2017 - 5:00 AM7 comments

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

WEST HAVEN — The Weber County Transfer Station is getting buried by its recycling problem.

The recycling industry has been in crisis mode since about 2014 thanks to falling oil prices globally and an economic slowdown in China, the biggest consumer of recycled commodities. Back home in Weber County, that means the transfer station has been operating in the red since 2011.

“There is no money in recycling at this point,” said Kevin McLeod, the assistant director of community and economic development in Weber County.

Weber County’s transfer station accepts general trash from homes and businesses. It also takes construction and demolition waste, produces compost from green waste and bales recyclable waste, which is trucked off for processing by a private contractor. Profits from the recycled materials are divided among the contractor and county. 

But as oil has flooded the global market, it has become cheaper to produce things like plastic out of new materials rather than recycled ones. That wasn’t the case when Weber County began its recycling program in 2003, joining with Ogden City to build a recycling center at the transfer station in West Haven. 

“The market was up. Recyclables were worth a lot of money,” McLeod said. “It was profitable for our contractor; it was profitable for us. But when the market dumps, the county’s still paying for the loader and still paying for the manpower.”

That means the county assumes most of the risk of the fickle recycling market. The county’s current contractor provides a baler so county employees can assemble recyclables to be shipped off-site and processed. But regardless of the market, the county also has to pay for the baler’s maintenance along with the workers and electricity used to run it. Those inescapable operating costs aren’t cheap. 

“What we want to do ... is divert that risk,” McLeod said. “Because the county shouldn’t be involved in a speculative (investment). We don’t want to be risking taxpayer money.”

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Meanwhile, the tent structure used to house county recycling activities is deteriorating, and recent snowfall has only made the roof worse. But the county doesn’t have funds to repair it.

A recent financial analysis of the transfer station found it operating at a net loss of $337,704 in 2016. Recycling alone dug the county $474,323 in the hole, but those costs were offset somewhat with profits from processing general residential and commercial waste.

While costs for recycling climb, the numbers also show county residents’ participation in the program have grown. The transfer station received more than 13,000 tons of recycling in 2015, a 200 percent jump from the 4,400 tons it received in 2005. At the same time, general trash tonnage dropped — from a 2008 peak of 216,000 tons to the 186,000 tons weighed in 2015 — and general trash tends to be more profitable. 

Around 85 percent of the recycled material flowing into the transfer station comes from Ogden, McLeod said, but every city in the county participates in recycling, making it a “countywide issue.”

That’s why a group of city officials came together last year to formulate a plan to make the transfer station profitable again — or at least get it to break even.

“I never knew there was so much money in trash and recycling,” said Washington Terrace Mayor Mark Allen, spokesman for the transfer station committee.

The county’s and city committee’s first big effort was increasing the fee for construction and demolition waste from $26 to $40 a ton. That waste had been a big money pit, too, costing the county an extra $250,000 in 2016. The county commission approved the fee change in July 2016, and Allen said construction and demolition waste costs are now breaking even.

But recycling costs continue to pile.

“The (construction and demolition) fee raise was a simple decision ... that was an easy fix,” Allen said. “The recycling and capitol improvements for the entire transfer station are a bigger issue.”

Early on, there was talk of eliminating Weber County’s recycling program all together. The Davis County landfill eliminated theirs last spring, citing similar issues.

RELATEDEnd of Davis landfill drop-off recycling resulted from international trends

“That was not a popular idea with the cities ... we’ve worked hard to get people to recycle,” Allen said. “Utah’s a little behind the times ... It’s a fight to get people recycling. To take it away would just be crazy at this time.”

Instead, the county is looking for a new recycling contractor that will process and bail the waste with its own equipment and manpower. They just finished reviewing proposals from four private companies early this year.

Revolve, a recycling facility set to open in Cache Valley in April, is one of the contractors hoping to be considered. Spokesman Alex Bearnson said recycling can still turn a profit if it’s done well.

“You go to these facilities and see how they operate, and there’s a lot of lack structure, organization and efficiency,” he said. 

Profitable private sector recycling, he added, is “a numbers game, really.”

Revolve’s plan to be profitable in Weber County includes getting more recycled material. Nationally, U.S. citizens recycle 34.6 percent of their waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In comparison, Weber County residents sent a paltry 7.1 percent of their waste sent to the transfer station as recyclables or green waste for compost. 

Even in a down market, more material means more money as long as operation costs stay low. Bearnson would like to include glass in Weber County’s recycling stream to boost material recycling tonnage.

“You go anywhere in Utah, and they don’t accept glass at curbside. But glass is generally four percent of the waste stream,” he said. “So allowing us to do that saves (the county) huge amounts of tonnage from going to the landfill.”

Revolve also tries to increase the amount of recycled material by educating those tossing materials in the trash.

“If people are educated on what to put in recycling bins, they’re more likely to recycle and more likely to do it right,” Bearnson said.

Companies like Revolve then make money off the influx of recycled waste by extracting as many valuable materials possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible, then locating markets that still want those materials.

“The best thing to do is think about it like we’re mining. We’re just not mining the mountain side; we’re mining trash,” he said. 

Weber County officials expect to make an announcement on the new recycling contractor in the coming weeks. But throwing out stuff takes a toll. Regardless of the contract that’s hammered out, both county and city officials said residents, too, should expect to show how much they value recycling. 

“Part of this study is to come up with a fee that would cover the costs, and the ups and downs, to make us able to operate in the black,” McLeod said. “The public doesn’t understand. When they put a garbage can on the street, they expect it to be picked up and taken. They have no idea all that goes on.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter at @LeiaLarsen.

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