Voluntary recycling report shows reduced usage; projected increase in trash tipping fees

Chad Frey
The Kansan
The city of Newton now has one full year of data to review when it comes to voluntary curbside recycling and its effects, after spending nearly the entirety of 2020 without a mandatory recycling program.

The city of Newton now has nearly one full year of data to review when it comes to voluntary curbside recycling and its effects, after spending almost all of 2020 without a mandatory recycling program. 

"So far this approach to recycling collection is promising," wrote Suzanne Loomis, director of public works, in a memo circulated as part of the city commission agenda for the meeting scheduled for Feb. 23. 

There is a caveat to the data — the program was suspended for roughly two months due to COVID-19. That suspension would not change the number of users removed from the program due to violations but would affect solid waste tipping fees and recycling tonnage. 

The jury is still out and there could be "inevitable" trash tipping fee increases coming to the city this year as it deals with more trash, and fewer recyclables. 

In 2020 the city collected about 402 tons of recyclables — down from 1,510 tons the previous year. In turn, trash collection increased to 6,731 tons from 5,032 tons. 

The city commission first approved the move to a voluntary program on Dec. 10, 2019. 

The move was precipitated when Harvey County eliminated mandatory recycling rules during negotiations of a new contract with Waste Management Systems. Waste Management had been struggling with items that were not eligible for recycling coming to the transfer station sorting center. 

As a result of those negotiations, any truck entering the recycling facility with more than 10% of non-recyclables on board can result in a $350 per load fine — and the truck can be banned from the facility for 30 days.

Shortly after the fines and bans went into effect, several trucks from Newton were tagged for "contamination." Found in the recycling containers were shoes, extension cords, an office chair and soiled diapers.

“When a pan of lasagna, which we have had, gets dumped and smashed, it gets all over everything and contaminates the whole load,” Loomis said in February of 2020.

The city of Newton chose to hire staff to inspect recycle carts as they were to be loaded into the truck — and the result was eight loads rejected in 2020. 

When the city went to a voluntary program, staff estimated about 725 customers would volunteer, but at the deadline for registration, there were 2,341 customers signed up.

All trash bills were increased by $1.08 per month and customers were given the choice of whether they wanted to recycle or not. However, if a customer chose to recycle, they needed to follow all recycling rules to avoid contamination of an entire load taken to the Recycling Facility.

In 2020, 789 participants were removed from the program after getting three, or more, violation notices about non-recyclables in their carts. More than 100 participants were removed in January 2021. 

"When removed from the recycling program, customers sit out for one calendar year," Loomis wrote. "They may request to come back into the recycling program."

As a result of the program, the city recycled about 1,100 fewer tons of recycled material in 2020. That, in turn, led to more trash tipped at the transfer station — and more tipping fees for solid waste. According to a memo to be reviewed by the city commission on Feb. 23, the city paid about  $15,400 in additional tipping fees in 2020. 

"This increase in trash tonnage also requires higher use of the trash trucks versus the recycling trucks," Loomis said.

That comes at a time when a recycling truck is due for replacement. City staff will spend the month of February evaluating if that replacement can be postponed for a year. 

"We are performing a pilot project during the month of February to see if we can run all solid waste routes for each day with only one recycling truck to put off the purchase of a truck for at least one year until we are able to see where the future of recycling markets is trending," Loomis said.

Recycling requirements include only recycling Nos. 1 through 7 plastics; glass food and beverage containers; aluminum and steel food containers; missed paper products; and corrugated cardboard. All recyclables must be clean. No Styrofoam, pizza boxes, plastic bags, toys, solid paper or shredded paper will be allowed.