As towns dump their programs, Concord says it’s still recycling

  • Pay-As-You-Throw trash bags await pick-up on North State Street in Concord. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 5/18/2019 11:13:33 PM

Concord residents who wonder what’s happening to the recyclables they put out on the curb every week amid the collapse of recycling markets can rest assured, says the city: They are still actually being recycled.

At least, they’d better be.

“If a homeowner makes the commitment to make sure what’s in the bin is recyclable, Casella is recycling it,” said Chip Chesley, General Services director for Concord, referring to the firm that has the city contract to collect trash and recyclables through 2024. “They have a contractual obligation to recycle materials. … Casella’s proposal to the city, upon which the contract is predicated, states recyclables generated and collected in the city will be hauled to their recycling facility in Charlestown, Mass., for final processing.”

Casella, a major regional waste-hauling firm, agreed.

“I can guarantee you that – anything in Concord in a Casella truck for recycling is being recycled,” said Bob Cappadona, vice president of Casella Recycling. “Rest assured – every one of the commodities is going to a reused or recycled market.”

Concord does not have the staff to independently verify what happens to the truckloads of material picked up by Casella – which total about 3,500 tons from residents and 1,300 tons from commercial and businesses each year.

Concord relies on the company’s reports about materials just as, Chesley said, it has long relied on reports from other contractors about meeting requirements.

“We don’t have a genie to put in the milk cartons,” is how Chesley phrased it.

If the city found that Casella was shoving recyclables into a landfill or incinerator, he said, “it would be a problem, just as if we followed a trash truck and they dumped it on (somebody’s) front yard.”

The Monitor raised the question because some communities have abandoned their recycling programs due to the soaring cost of separating out single-stream recycling materials, prodded by a near shutdown of purchases by China.

This has led to questions about what exactly waste companies are doing with single-stream material, since it’s now cheaper per ton to dump them at landfills than to separate out items that can be sold. A Monitor reader asked us to find out.

Towns that require people to manually separate their recyclables into paper, cardboard, glass, metal and aluminum, usually at the local transfer station, are in better shape because some of that material can still be sold on the open market.

Compared to most single-stream cities and towns, Concord is in better shape because it signed a flat contract with Casella in which the company guarantees to pick up cans, bottles, plastic and paper for a certain price, regardless of what happens to the value of those materials. Communities whose budgets depended on getting a certain return from selling recyclables have been hammered.

The city will spend $674,049 this year to have recyclables collected, both in curbside bins and in large containers at schools, apartment buildings and city offices.

That’s not to say the program in Concord hasn’t tightened. Notably, plastic bags are no longer recycled because they snarl the machinery that separates out material. Further, Casella has gotten much pickier about what’s acceptable in those green curbside bins, in terms of putting up with food waste or non-recyclable items.

“That’s what has changed – they are rejecting more loads at the curb. That’s what we hear: Oh, they didn’t collect my recycling,” said Angelina Zulkic, communications coordinator for General Services. “They’re more strictly enforcing what they collect, to keep recycling pure. The more pure it is, the more sustainable it is.”

The city’s annual report says this about recycling: “In fiscal year 2022, the City Council and staff should review, in earnest, our future needs and best alternatives that will be available to address those needs.” The current city contract with Casella runs through 2024.

Concord started curbside recycling in 2005 with a dual-stream program that used two different bins and, like many communities, turned to a single-stream with a single bin to boost participation. However, letting people put everything into a bin also boosted the amount of contamination as people tossed in un-recyclable items – light bulbs, Styrofoam containers, glass jars with food in them, batteries and so forth.

Such contamination wasn’t much of a problem when China was buying most recyclables to use as raw material. But China cracked down last year, mandating such a low level of contamination that most systems couldn’t meet it, which means that material that once brought a hefty profit now costs money to get dumped. Other market changes, including the decline of the paper mills that once bought waste paper, have contributed to the problem.

“Before, we could be sloppy. We can’t be sloppy anymore,” said Chesley. “When we started recycling it was all about quantity. … Now the real paradigm is all about quality.”

Cappadona said that while China’s crackdown has hurt markets for recyclables, it hasn’t killed them.

“The perception is … that market’s gone away, there are no markets at all. There are still plenty of markets other than China. They don’t have the same appetite, that’s what has caused a decrease in value, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any market. It just means there’s an oversupply out there,” he said.

For details about acceptable practices in the city, check the website:

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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