Landfill maintains status quo despite shrinking recyclables market

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries. In 1999, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 230 million tons of municipal solid waste, or about 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
   Currently, in the United States, 28 percent of municipal waste is recovered and recycled or composted, 15 percent is burned at combustion facilities, while the remaining 57 percent is disposed of in landfills.
   Recycling and composting nearly doubled from 1990 to 1999, with 64 million tons of material diverted from landfills and incinerators in 1999, compared to 34 million tons in 1990.
   Recyclable materials are collected and processed into new materials and products, generating a variety of benefits. However, the market for products containing post-consumer waste is not sufficient to keep up with the amount generated, making recycling "a losing proposition" for landfill operators, according to Ed Buckles, director of Elizabethton/Carter County solid waste landfill.
   The landfill operates on the revenue it generates. "I don't really get any tax money. I've not got any since 1990," Buckles said. With the price of recyclables continuing to spiral downward, the landfill could actually begin to lose money on what it takes in.
   Buckles said he received notification recently that the price of cardboard had dipped to $35 per ton.
   "When we started four years ago, it was $260 a ton. I was pretty well breaking even at $40 a ton, but at $35, I'm going to start losing a little money, I guess."
   The demand for plastics also has declined. "I've got a trailer load and a half down there (of PET plastic) I can't even give away. If you want to pay them, they'll come load it up and haul it off. But I'm not doing that," he said.
   Newsprint, which had been fairly stable, now appears to be on shaky ground, according to Buckles.
   "The last time I looked a couple of weeks ago, it was about $55 to $60 a ton. When it starts going down on the West Coast it's going to go down here, too. The only difference between the West Coast and here is it goes down more.
   "Like right now, cardboard here is $35 and on the West Coast it's $55 to $65, the reason being they're right there where they put it on a boat and it goes to the Pacific Rim. We have to ship it cross-country, so we get less for it," he said.
   The landfill has seven employees to handle the demolition landfill, transfer station, office work, recycling and two convenience sites in Elk Mills and Roan Mountain. Equipment used in landfill operations ranges from seven to 22-23 years old. "We just kind of keep it together and take care of it and hope it will last for awhile," Buckles said.
   "Most of what we've bought we've got through grants from the state. Everything that we've bought has been on an 80/20 split. The grants pay 80 percent and the county pays 20 percent," Buckles said.
   "I've got five trucks -- one single axle we haul recycle boxes with, two tandem roll-offs, one tractor we pull the trailers with, and a pickup."
   According to Buckles, the landfill currently is "just kind of easing along with everything the way it is. I don't look for any changes over the next few years," he said.
   The landfill received a grant last year, enabling it to turn the former Bemberg water treatment plant into a recycling facility. The money was used to renovate the building and buy equipment.
   "It's working real good, if we were making anything off of it. But it's like everything else," he said.
   Commercial accounts such as Inland Container and larger stores in the area generate most of the revenue from recyclables. Though the number of persons who recycle continues to increase, Buckles said the landfill has not pursued a vigorous recycling campaign.
   "I just don't have the time or the money to do it. When you start doing that, you've got to have a lot more sites and you've got to have a lot more business. It's hard to make that part of it pay.
   "To be honest with you, recycling is a losing proposition. It always has been and probably always will be. The market's not that good. The government won't give these companies any incentive or say, 'If you do this, you're going to get a tax break.'
   "It costs a lot of money. If you start going out here and buying these $70,000 to $80,000 trucks and $5,000 to $6,000 boxes, it doesn't take long to sink a big pile of money in it," Buckles said.
   "We've got a lot of people that recycle. We take aluminum cans, glass, newsprint, cardboard and plastic. If you're doing one of them you've got to take the others because that's what the individual is generating. You can't tell them, 'Bring me your newsprint, bring me your cardboard, but I don't want the rest of it.' If they bring it you've got to take it all.
   "Hopefully this recycling thing will get straightened out and it will turn back up instead of going down," he said.