The hidden cost of recycling

Ben Fitch

Since last year, the return on recyclable commodities has lowered, causing many recycling businesses to raise their prices, while forcing others to close up shop.

The end result for Washburn is whether there will be a recycling service serving campus

“Part of our dilemma with recycling is that we have no place to hold it,” said Kathy Reser, memorial union director. “We depend on a secondary market to pick up all of our stuff.”

For a while, the Memorial Union had contracted with Cranston Recycling to collect all recyclables, mostly paper, from the loading dock on the building. The owner did all of his own pick-up, and subsequently was not always able to come get the materials, which accumulated at times and blew through the parking lot on windy days. Cranston Recycling has since gone out of business.

Jim Tuchscherer runs a local recycling business, Home Recycling Service, which provides a monthly pick-up service for materials such as plastic, glass, cans, paper and steel. He charges $6 for curb-side pick-up, which is his greatest source of revenue.

“I was just in the middle of having to raise my rates when gas went up to four dollars a gallon,” said Tuchscherer.

The resale of recyclable materials never accounts for more than 25 percent of Tuchscherer’s revenue.

“Recycling is a great idea and we all believe in it, but there is a cost associated with it that we all need to be mindful of,” said Eric Moss, associate director of Washburn facilities services.

In Topeka, the market for recyclable materials is sparse for a variety of reasons. First, there are no local markets for commodities such as glass and plastic, so the shipping costs along with the costs associated with processing materials make it hard to break-even for sellers such as Shawnee County Recycling, which collects Washburn’s refuse.

April and May of 2008 were the best months for Shawnee County Recycling, said Joan Graves, operations coordinator.

For plastic alone, Shawnee County was selling bottles for 12 cents a pound, milk jugs for 23 cents a pound, 10 cents a pound for colored plastic and two cents a pound for plastic totes. By the end of April, Shawnee County had made $3,000 in revenue and another $2,000 by the end of May, half of which went to labor costs. The other half paid for the fuel and shipping costs. The County shipped three loads in May with a $250 shipping fee. In the end, the company barely broke even, but the return during April and May was still considered unusually high.

“That probably is something that I will never see again in my lifetime,” said Graves.

Since then, the prices for plastic have dropped by at least half as a result of economic recession.

“No one was buying anything,” said Graves. “The only things that we can get rid of locally are our paper products and aluminum.”

After Washburn’s refuse is collected by Shawnee County, it goes to a variety of processing plants. Sonoco Recycling, the plant that processes Washburn’s recyclable paper, decreased the price it pays for paper from $100 a ton to $20 a ton in the last two months.

Shawnee County Recycling charges a monthly $45 rental fee for each container it sets for pick-up. Washburn has a container for cardboard which is picked up twice a week, a container for paper picked up once a week and a container for plastic that is on-call for pick-up. Since the fee is a new charge, Washburn only pays for the container for plastic which was added for pick-up after the fee was implemented. A lack of manpower to crunch numbers is the main reason Shawnee County has not begun charging for the other containers, Graves said. Shawnee County has 12 employees in charge of the entire recycling operation.

Reser said the lack of awareness about recycling may be because of being located in the Midwest.

“We have blue skies and lots of land around us and we don’t understand the need to protect our environment,” said Reser. “The solution will need to be student driven and we will need to educate about the problem.”

Mike Jauken, chief of grounds keeping, said progress in recycling can be made with small efforts, such as taking the caps off of plastic bottles before they are put in the recycling bins. When processing plants press the bottles into bales, the bottles will not lay flat if the caps are still on them because of the air trapped inside.

Jauken said it is by far cheaper for Washburn to recycle than to send refuse to the dump.

“The number of plastic bottles that we get from our pop machines is tremendous,” said Jauken.

The energy savings are a good indicator of how valuable it is to recycle materials said Tuchscherer. For example, to recycle aluminum requires 5 percent of the energy that it takes to produce new aluminum.

Washburn has sent over two-million pounds of material to be recycled since August, 2000.