Baton Rouge residents, following the trend of cities nationwide, are recycling more than ever. But these days the more people recycle, the harder it is for those in the business to stay profitable.
The reason: People aren’t always good at recycling.
In their curbside bins, residents regularly toss nonrecyclable materials that slow down recycling facilities because of the additional labor to sort out the garbage.
Garbage can also contaminate other perfectly good recycling materials, reducing the amount of product that can be sold by recyclers. For example, dirty paper, pizza boxes, light bulbs, mirrors and waxed cardboard are just some of the many items people mistake for recyclables.
That’s one reason Baton Rouge leaders are suggesting the city-parish’s program move away from glass, as the product has become costly to process, coupled with a lower demand for the product.
This Wednesday, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council is scheduled to vote on renewing the city-parish’s garbage, trash and recycling contracts. However, staff is requesting the item be deferred for two weeks as it continues to work on possible solutions to keep glass recycling in the contract.
Since 2007, East Baton Rouge curbside recycling collections have wavered consistently between 15,000 and 16,000 tons per year. That’s about a 50 percent increase over where the collections were before 2006.
In 2006, two things changed. Baton Rouge switched from 18-gallon green recycling bins to the 64-gallon rolling recycling carts that are the same size as the regular garbage collection receptacles. Baton Rouge also went from a “dual-sort” recycling system, where recycling products were separated by homeowners into two piles — plastic, aluminum and glass versus paper and cardboard — to “single stream” recycling, where all recyclables are in a single container.
The changes made it easier for residents to recycle, so collections have increased. But the increase in material also means more mistakes are being made, chipping away at the profit margins of recyclers. In many cities, recyclers have had to raise rates for their services.
“Our margins are not real great. We’re struggling,” said David Quaife, Progressive Waste division manager for Baton Rouge. “A lot of companies around the country are having issues trying to stay profitable and trying to run facilities.”
At the current $1.76 per household per month, Baton Rouge residents are paying some of the lowest costs in the state for their recycling, which is provided by Progressive Waste Solutions of Louisiana.
According to the proposed contract extension, Progressive would be allowed a 4 percent price increase in the monthly rate beginning November 2016.
The average recycling cost for residents in the state is $2.40 per household per month, said Susan Hamilton, director of the city-parish’s recycling office.
Cutting glass from recycling operations is one way companies across the country have been able to save money.
Once it’s sorted and cleaned, glass is sold for between $10 and $25 a ton, Quaife said. Aluminum goes for $980 a ton and plastic goes for between $400 and $500 a ton.
Quaife said that in addition to being a lower-valued product, crushed glass also can contaminate their other recyclable materials and damage their equipment. He said the larger bins and commingling of products have lead to glass being crushed more frequently.
But Lynn Bragg, president of Virginia-based Glass Packaging Institute, the trade association representing the glass container manufacturers, said the demand for glass is just as strong as ever.
“There is a strong and consistent demand for recycled glass by glass container manufacturing companies, which operate 46 plants around the country,” she said in an email. “On average, U.S. glass container manufacturing companies purchase about 2.4 million tons of recycled glass annually, which is re-melted with sand, soda ash and limestone to make new bottles and jars.”
But Bragg also agreed that single-stream collection processes like the one used in Baton Rouge have created challenges.
The increase in the number of materials being tossed into collection bins has resulted in glass collections being a mix of 50 percent trash.
“Glass recycling processors then have more costs to clean up what they receive,” she said. “As well as having to pay to landfill the trash that comes with it.”
Progressive has valued the cost of including glass in the contract at $735,000 per year.
Initially, city-parish leaders suggested dropping it altogether. But now they say they’re going back to the drawing board to find a way to include it.
“The mayor believes recycling is a good thing,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden. “If we can recycle something as oppose to landfilling it, we want to do that.”
Hamilton said the true value of the recycling program is measured in how much waste the city-parish is able to divert from the landfill in Zachary. For more than a decade, the recycling program has been able to divert between 20 and 30 percent of waste that would otherwise be sent to the landfill.
“The more material we divert, the longer it lasts,” Hamilton said of the landfill.
Despite the additional costs, Hamilton said, she hopes to keep glass as a recyclable. Last year, glass made up about 7 percent of the overall curbside collections in East Baton Rouge.
The city-parish is proposing extending Progressive’s 10 year contract through February 2018 — at which point leaders say the contract would be rebid. At that point, Hamilton said, it would be time to discuss whether the city-parish should return to a dual-sort system to try to offset rising costs.
“Glass is a small component, but it’s an important component,” she said. “It’s an item that people identify as very recyclable. It’s an important part of public perception and it would be a blow to our program to have to take it out.”
* This article was edited after publication to fix a quote that was incorrect.