By Terry Lane and Hannah Leyva
Staff and contributing writers
Changes in the international recycling market could impact whether Wrightsville Beach is able to launch a curbside recycling program that town officials were working to implement.
Representatives of Pink Trash, the trash hauler with the winning bid offer, told town officials that current market conditions made it unlikely the vendor could meet its current bid offer. After more than a year of local negotiations to set up a curbside recycling program for residents, a decision by the Chinese government to ban recycling imports could derail the effort before it begins.
At this point, implementation of a curbside recycling program is on hold, Town Manager Tim Owens said, adding that the policy change in Asia was affecting municipal recycling programs across the country, as increased rates to process the recyclable materials were beginning to exceed the costs of disposing it into a landfill.
Pink Trash and Wrightsville Beach were in negotiations for a rate that would be applied monthly to each resident for weekly curbside recycling pickup. While initial estimates of the cost would have been $5 or less, Owens said that Pink Trash representatives estimated it would rise “significantly higher” due to the policy change.
The April decision by the Chinese government to expand the list of banned recyclable imports came after a March 7 town board of aldermen workshop with the two leading vendors, which included Waste Industries along with Pink Trash.
In the meantime, Owens said staff would keep an eye on the recycling market, though it would likely be up to town leaders to decide how to act on the changes.
“Nothing in the marketplace has proven to be advantageous,” Owens said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and will probably go back to the board of aldermen and get guidance.”
One option would be for the town to ask for new bids for the contract, which would let residents put recycling bins at the curb for pickup.
Unlike the town of Wrightsville Beach, New Hanover County deals directly with Sonoco Recycling to process the recycled material collected in the unincorporated areas. In 2015, the company and county, along with the City of Wilmington, entered into an agreement that included a set rate per ton of recycling as well as a permit for Sonoco to build a material recovery facility near the county’s landfill. (The facility opened in 2016 off Highway 421.)
Due to this agreement, most residents in unincorporated New Hanover County have not felt the impact of the new Chinese policy, but it is affecting the county’s coffers.
“Our rates haven’t gone up, but the amount of revenue has gone down,” said Joe Suleyman, the county’s director of environmental management, who added that drop-off sites have not been affected.
According to Suleyman, the county gets $10 of revenue per ton within a certain range as per the agreement. Anything above that range, and the extra revenue gets split in half with the company. Below that range, both entities eat the cost equally. Revenue rates have been dropping steadily since January, Suleyman said.
“We’ve historically seen ups and downs. We’re used to that in this business,” Suleyman said. “The difference this time is that the bottom seems much lower.”
The only local residents that are impacted as of now, said Suleyman, are the ones use vendors like Pink Trash, Waste Management, or Waste Industries to collect their recyclables. Though Suleyman said many things are currently up in the air, New Hanover County is trying to mitigate future impacts as best they can.
“We’ve seen other municipalities cut programs [due to the Chinese policy],” Suleyman said. “We’re not planning to do that. Our focus here is more on reducing contamination through education.”