Bow is the latest town to give up – temporarily, at least – on recycling

  • A blue recycling bin goes into the same container as trash during waste pickup on Heidi Lane in Bow on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Pinard Waste Systems driver Jeremy Houle places a warning ticket on a recycling bin due to styrofoam.

  • Tony Belanger, director of operations at Pinard Waste Systems, looks over the recyclable waste for styrofoam as driver Jeremy Houle prepares to write up a ticket at a house on Heidi Lane in Bow on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • A container of trash is lifted up into a Pinard Waste System truck in front of a home on Heidi Lane in Bow on Wednesday, April 19, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Driver Jeremy Houle (left) and Tony Belanger, director of operations at Pinard Waste System, look over the recyclables at a house on Heidi Lane in Bow on Wednesday, April 19, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/24/2019 5:31:45 PM

As Bow joins the lists of communities trashing their recycling in the light of soaring costs, one regional firm says there is hope for the industry – but it’s not the hope that towns and taxpayers want to hear.

“Every indicator is that recycling is going to start looking a heck of a lot better … because the (municipal solid waste) market will get tighter,” said Tony Belanger, director of operations at Pinard Waste System of Manchester. In other words, getting rid of trash will become so expensive, recycling will seem like a bargain.

Belanger pointed to the closing of landfills in Massachusetts and a reluctance to build new facilities or expand existing ones, combined with regulations on the burning of municipal waste.

For the time being, however, the cost of recycling most materials remains well above the cost of putting them in a landfill or burning them in a generator.

“It’s maybe $30 a ton off (more expensive to recycle) right now. That’s enough to put a dent in your budget, but it’s not $80 a ton, which we saw a few times in the past year,” said Belanger, who oversees the recycling and trash collection for more than a dozen communities, including Bow and most Suncook Valley towns.

That extra cost, which has come about because China has stopped buying most of the nation’s recycled materials, means an increasing number of communities are curtailing or ceasing their recycling efforts to save money. Some are no longer recycling glass, some are switching away from single-stream to self-sorting, and some, including the city of Franklin, have ended municipal recycling programs entirely.

Bow trashes recycling

Bow is the latest community to make a move. As part of ongoing negotiations with Pinard, they are testing a system where recycling is being collected along with trash and taken to an incinerator or a landfill, to determine what effect it will have on costs.

The town has budgeted an extra $73,500, an increase of about 30% in the solid waste budget, to cover the increase. Another way to think of that expense: if the increase was spread between each of the town’s 3,000 households, it would cost about $25 a year per home.

Bow’s contract with Pinard runs out in June. Right now, as Bow Town Manager David Stack explained it, Pinard takes recyclable material for free and is responsible for its disposal while Bow is charged $69.05 per ton for trash disposal – a difference that explains why the town has urged residents to recycle.

Pinard won’t continue this arrangement because it costs too much to handle co-mingled recyclables, collected in what is known as a single-stream system.

As of July 1, the start of the budget year, Bow will have to pay to get rid of recyclables just like it does trash, at $69.05 per ton. Stack estimated there would be 1,050 tons of recyclables in the coming year, including the school system, and 3,600 tons of trash.

Two things may reduce the extra expense.

One is trucking: Pinard charges a flat $423,393 for a year’s curbside collection using separate trucks for recycling and trash. This cost may go down if Pinard can pick up both materials in one truck; the company is nearing the end of a pilot test to determine what effect that will have on its manpower costs.

The other thing that might reduce the extra expense is the market for recyclables. If it becomes possible to recycle material for less than the disposal cost of $70 a ton, then Pinard would do that recycling and Bow’s costs would go down.

In the meantime, even though it seems counter-productive for people to separate recyclables from trash if it’s all going to be mixed back together again and incinerated, officials don’t want people to get out of the habit.

“We have a pretty decent rate of recycling ... there’s a lot of dedicated recyclers in town. We hope they continue to recycle so when the market turns around we can quickly return to recycling,” said Stack.

Balancing act

Towns of all sizes are having to balance environmental concern and annual budgets. In Salisbury, which is one-sixth the size of Bow with a population of 1,200, residents spent about a third of this year’s town meeting debating the issue before deciding not to keep recycling, which would have added about $4,000 to the $110,000 solid waste budget.

“People have a pragmatic approach – can we afford to do this good thing?” said Steve Wheeler, who manages the town transfer station. “I personally see the benefits of recycling but I can’t point to any economic benefits at this point.”

Small towns like Salisbury are hit particularly hard because they generate relatively small amounts of recyclable material and can’t take advantage of economies of scale.

“Even though we generate a bit over a million pounds of household waste and recyclables (annually), there is a lack of scale for some of the processing,” Wheeler. He pointed to the need for balers to bind together loose material and places to store it for months or more until enough is accumulated for shipping.

“The only way to economically ship it, even after separated, 44,000 pounds of a distinct material has to be separated. That just can’t happen in a town of this size,” he said. “It’s less expensive to incinerate the plastic.”

Canterbury also faced the issue at town meeting but had a different conclusion. By an overwhelming margin, the meeting supported a non-binding resolution that the town should continue to recycle “all available materials” even when it may have a “negative financial impact.”

Paper is a big problem

The problem, as has been well reported, is that China has sharply cut down on the amount and type of material that it will buy. For many years China bought the bulk of the world’s recycled material to use as raw material for its products, but it has expressed concerns about pollution and wants to develop its own domestic recycling practices.

The loss of the world’s biggest market sent prices on virtually all products tumbling, to the point that communities which were once paid for their old metal or plastic now have to pay to remove it.

Adding to the problem for new Hampshire recyclers is the decline in the paper industry, which once bought a large portion of old newsprint, paper and cardboard. These products, known in the industry as “fiber,” make up about half the weight of municipal recycled material on average.

“Fiber is the real driving economic force. When it was paying $15 to $30 a ton historically to the consumer at the gate, it was a success. ... Now they’re charging upwards of $70 a ton,” said Belanger.

Belanger said the industry is working to respond to China’s shutdown, but it will take time. He estimated that markets will be hurting for up to three more years.

“All the plants down in Lawrence, Haverhill, Fitchburg (Massachusetts) that used to fill the demand for paper are all gone because China basically pushed them out of business. Now that China doesn’t want the stuff anymore and we’re coming to the crisis, the industry is saying, ‘I guess we jumped the gun on that,’ ” he said. “It’s time to reactive these plants, modernize, create domestic markets again.

“But that doesn’t happen overnight.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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