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Recycling cost zoom up causing it to be unaffordable for residents of some Lexington County municipa

South Congaree, SC (Paul Kirby) – Recently, several Lexington county towns were at a point where they had to renegotiate their garbage services contracts. They were a bit surprised by several things. First, in both South Congaree and Pine Ridge, only one company was even willing to bid on their contracts for curbside pickup. Next, the company bidding their contracts, Tyler Sanitation out of Aiken, didn’t seem interested in picking up their recyclables curbside at all.

Picking up someone’s trash would seem to be the worst part of the solid waste handling business. Imagine last week’s dinner sweltering in that plastic bag in a can for a week in the summer heat; Yuck! Recyclables, they don’t seem so bad; besides everyone has seen people picking up aluminum cans roadside to make some extra cash. There must be money to be made right? After hearing that both South Congaree and Pine Ridge had to drop recycling from their services because of the cost that the single bidding contractor gave them, we decided to investigate just why they were quoting such high prices for picking up the recyclables.

Several years ago, when a solid waste contractor picked up recyclables, they could get paid by the ton for it from a company that separated it at their facility and then bundled it into huge bails for reuse. First, let’s make sure we all understand curbside bins are co-mingled recyclables. That could include the plastic drink bottles, glass, paper and cardboard, and all the things the recycling list said you could dispose of that way. Lexington County and the towns have never separated recyclables curbside. It all goes together in the little bin and that’s called co-mingled. According to Dave Eger, Lexington County’s director of solid waste management, a man with over 44-years’ experience in the field, that stuff was the trucked to the one MRF (Material Recovery Facility) on Bluff Road owned by a company called Sonoco. Three years ago, some contractors were getting paid about $17 per ton (2,000 lbs.) by Sonoco to take this mix of recyclables to the MRF in Columbia. They are the only company in SC who’s in that business of accepting, separating, and bundling the material. Sonoco then sent it to companies who reused it to make all types of things. As much as 20% of it went to China in the large bails for reuse. The rest was either repurposed by Sonoco subsidiaries themselves or other companies like Voridian in Calhoun County and Wellman near Johnsonville, SC. Those two make recycled plastics into pellets that eventually become drink bottles again and things like that.

At some point, the Chinese decided that they would get their act together as a country in terms of pollution. Sometimes even plastic grocery bags can be a pollutant if it’s mixed with other types of plastic. Buying their percentage of the big bails from far away USA didn’t allow them much control over what all was in the bails. So, they decided to stop buying so much. Eventually, they’ve stopped buying completely at the first of this month. Remember, that’s a whopping 20% of the market that’s just dried up and blew away over the last few years.

Now, instead of buying recyclables, Sonoco is charging contractors and governments to take it in. At first, they charged about $25 per ton for co-mingled products. Now, they’re up to $50 to $55 per ton. It’s the free market system and as demand for the product decreases, the cost of handling it remains the same. Fewer buyers means less sales and less sales means you normally would tell your raw material suppliers to cut back on deliveries, but this is recycling. This is something we are supposed to do. They still take it, but you’re going to have to pay up. Experts believe that the price to accept recyclables will continue to go up until the market’s demand versus supply evens out. Eger says no one really knows how high the price of handling recyclables will go, so hauling contractors are hesitant to enter into long-term agreements that could trap them into accepting those items at a big loss. He pointed out that Lexington County never owns these materials, it’s the contractor that pick the stuff up off the curb that own it. These companies aren’t charities, they’re businesses, and they can’t get stuck with these items on their trucks or stockpiled somewhere. Sonoco is their only choice!

Eger says that Lexington County can still make a small amount of money on some items like separated glass bottles that people bring to their collection centers. It must be separated by color when a citizen drops it off making it more valuable. Then, it’s taken it to bunkers in Edmund at their landfill where it can be hauled away. Aluminum cans, some metals, and even cardboard can also be sold if their brought to a collection station and separated by the person disposing of them. According to Eger, it’s not a big money maker but it’s still a good practice.

Eger said that recycling is still a viable alternative to burying everything in a landfill. He, and most government officials, strongly support the practice because it's good for the environment. “It’s another disposal methodology that’s a good idea.” He went on to explain that the benefit of the recycling business on jobs, industry, and the overall economy of South Carolina is immense. “Recycling’s impact here in SC is measured in the billions-of-dollars. That’s numbers from the SC Department of Commerce. Lexington County’s recyclables are still being used in a positive way and we’re not burying this material and it’s not filling our landfills so that’s a good thing. The cost of recycling has gone up but the cost of just burying the material in the ground needs to be measured alongside that,” Lexington County’s Eger concluded. Lexington County and its citizens have won awards for their efforts to recycle.

Eger appears right. Being a good steward of the environment is still the right thing to do. Some of the small towns have just been forced to measure what the extra cost of recycling would cost their citizens. In some cases like South Congaree and Pine Ridge’s, elected leaders just didn’t think that all the citizens could afford the additional cost. South Congaree’s Mayor Danny Jones said in a letter to his constituents recently, while some could easily afford the extra $20 or so a month to have curbside recycling, for others, that sum would be a huge burden. Keep in mind that Tyler gave them an all or nothing deal. The materials aren't hauled in the same truck so Tyler would have to get a recycling truck to come through South Congaree just to pick up bins of the people who signed up for the extra service.

If you live in those towns and other areas that might have to drop the curbside recycling pickup eventually, you can still take your recyclables to the closest county convenience station for free. You just have to carry it yourself.

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