Would consumers pay more for recycling?

Woodbury, New Jersey, is a town much like Marshall.

Both located in the southwest portion of their states and with similar populations (11K-15K), Woodbury’s biggest claim to fame is serving as the base camp for Gen. Charles Cornwallis during the British Army’s advance on Philadelphia during the American Revolution in the 1770s.

Fast forward a couple centuries and Donald Sanderson was serving on the town’s council and later as its mayor, giving him a front row seat to watch a growing problem facing the community: the landfill.

The local landfill was nearing capacity while crippling the community’s finances in terms of thousands of dollars in fees each year.

Something had to be done.

Sanderson, in a moment of true inspirational and visionary leadership, became aware that some of the material they were paying others to take … was actually worth something. And that in fact, others would pay the city for those materials.

After some heavy duty lobbying from Sanderson, Woodbury instituted the first mandatory curbside recycling program with separate bins for glass, metal, and paper (plastics were still trash).

The reaction from the public? Well, they hated it. A lot.

“They dumped trash on my lawn,” Sanderson recalls with a laugh in a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “I would open the door —  and they would dump it the night before —  and when I’d come out in the morning, I’d see what was there.” But, he says,  “it didn’t really bother me. It made me more determined to make the program a success.”

And it didn’t take long for that trash in Sanderson’s yard to disappear after he turned a financial drain into a revenue stream for the city overnight. Other nearby towns adopted similar programs. Sanderson quickly became the most sought-after mayor in America, speaking to communities across the country who would also model Woodbury’s program.

Lyon County and the communities in it were among those who would start a curbside recycling program in an effort to reduce the amount of garbage going to the landfill. And while the most current numbers indicate less than two-thirds of residents recycle, that number has been growing since the curbside feature was first introduced.

That makes sense as the more convenient recycling is for the resident, the more likely they will do it.

Which is why curbside recycling looks differently today than Sanderson’s brainchild. Back in the “old days,” recyclables had separate containers for each item. But we are too lazy for all that hassle. In an effort to get more people recycling, collectors agreed to take on the burden of sorting items.

That’s a labor intensive activity, and even then, folks got even more lax and started throwing out non-recyclables, or even garbage, in with the recyclables.

Despite all those shortcomings though, for many, many years it didn’t matter as the Chinese had a voracious appetite for our recyclables. Even the dirty ones with food stains. They didn’t care. They were making so much “stuff” they needed as much raw material as they could get.

And for us, it was like a dream world. Ships loaded with cheaply made Chinese goods arrived at our ports, dumped their bundle of goodies, and were then loaded back up with seemingly mountains of garbage, only to return again brimming with cheap electronics.

Unfortunately though, reality set in a couple years ago when China said no more and suddenly stopped taking our recyclables. As a result, paper that once sold for $70 a ton was worth … nothing. And plastics, which once sold for $220 a ton, cost money to be accepted.

Now, two years after that drastic market change, bids to provide that same curbside recycling program here in Lyon County exploded, going from about $300K-$700K for similar service. While that represents more than twice the costs for the same service, I’m actually surprised the increase wasn’t even more, all things considered.

Facing a Sept. 27 deadline, the commissioners made the decision to discontinue service and buy some roll off containers where residents can dump their recyclables.

As a result, there will be a drastic decrease in the amount of recyclables generated, causing an increase in trash headed to the landfill. After purchasing the containers, it will cost less to hire the needed personnel to maintain them and to haul off the recyclables, but the savings may be negated by a probable increase in landfill fees due to the extra volume.

There was one option the county could consider that would have allowed the curbside recycling program to continue: pass on that additional $400K a year cost to residents.

There are 6,600 residences and 2,000 apartment units covered by the recycling, and if each were to equally share in the increase, it would be about $4 a month, per household.

That’s not that burdensome.

Commissioner Charlie Sanow though had a different perspective.

“I’m going to go to the taxpayers and say, ‘I need two and a quarter, two and half times what you’re currently paying in taxes,” he asked rhetorically at a recent meeting.

Say? No. But I think Sanow and the board could have asked, and they might have been surprised by the answer. Right now, property owners are charged $30 annually for recycling to cover the $300K expense. While increasing it “two-and-a-half-times” sounds like a lot … it is still just $45 more.

Regrettably though, due to the timing of soliciting bids, the commission didn’t have the opportunity for public feedback and had to go forward with something. As a result, we will have drop off containers that will be filled with trash and turn into an unsightly headache to manage.

Perhaps in a year or so, once those containers have paid for themselves, commissioners can solicit bids again and be able to ask residents if they would pay $50 more for curbside recycling.

I’d bet they would.