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Recycling gets a price tag as Upper Valley towns pass costs to residents at drop-off

  • Bruce Vakiener, of Quechee, tosses a bag of garbage into the compactor Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at the Hartford, Vt., Transfer Station, where Hartford residents pay $4 for every 40 pounds of trash and residents of Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District towns pay $5. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Erik Skarsten, of Sharon, left, hands a pen back to Hartford Transfer Station employee Nick Witty, right, after marking off his punch card in Hartford, Vt., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. A card with ten punches costs $50 for non-Hartford residents and $40 for Hartford residents. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hannah Tyler, Hartford's public works director, said Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021 that a change in the fee for trash disposal at the Hartford, Vt., Transfer Station may be coming in July. She said the facility was built at a time when the market was strong for recyclables, but has since weakened. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Nick Witty pushes trash bags into the compactor at the Hartford Transfer Station in Hartford, Vt., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Greg Simack, of South Royalton, Vt., left, Steve Roberts, of Bethel, Vt., and Alan Yeager, of Bethel, unload their trash at the Bethel-Royalton Transfer station in Royalton on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Sherry Lewis. of Royalton, Vt., pays for her trash tickets from Ty Murawski, of Randolph, Vt., at the Bethel-Royalton Transfer Station in Royalton on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Beginningn in 2021, users of the Bethel-Royalton Transfer Station now need to pay to drop off their recycling and compost. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/13/2021 10:19:58 PM
Modified: 2/13/2021 10:19:56 PM

ROYALTON — Since the advent of recycling, the trash-throwing public has grown used to it being a free service. It costs money to throw out the trash, but recycling, with its halo of virtue and the value of the materials in the marketplace, was a blessed reprieve.

That has long been a fiction, as the cost of dumping garbage subsidizes the cost of recycling. But the truth will soon be hard to ignore for many Upper Valley residents who patronize their local transfer stations, at least on the Vermont side of the river.

A 2019 change in Vermont’s universal recycling law allows transfer stations to charge a separate fee for recycling and the people who manage those facilities are either putting those fees in place or planning to do so.

“It’s probably a misnomer to think of it as a free service,” Cathy Jamieson, solid waste program manager at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said of recycling. “We can no longer rely on the revenue from those materials to cover the cost.”

The Bethel-Royalton Transfer Station, which is on Waterman Road in Royalton and jointly operated with Bethel, instituted fees for recycling and for compost at the start of the year: $3 per visit for recycling and $2 a gallon for food scraps. The transfer station, which serves the eight towns of the White River Alliance, illustrates the challenges smaller communities face when they try to cover the cost of a service that many people take for granted and don’t particularly want to think about or pay for.

“We’re constantly running at a deficit,” Jenn Bartleman, who manages the Bethel-Royalton Transfer Station said in an interview. “We need to do something. We cannot continue as we are.”

As recently as the 2017-18 budget year, the sale of recyclable materials brought in more than $37,000 in revenue. Two years later, that had fallen to $17,000.

At the same time, transfer station officials have overestimated how much money fees would bring in, often by a considerable sum, including nearly $200,000 in 2017-18 and nearly $120,000 the following year.

There’s a happy medium that transfer stations have to find, said Hannah Tyler, Hartford’s director of Public Works.

“We really struggle with the balance of finding the sweet spot,” Tyler said, between covering the Hartford Transfer Station’s costs and driving patrons toward other disposal options, including improper ones such as backyard burn barrels or tossing refuse on the roadside.

Tyler said she’s likely to recommend fee increases to the Hartford Selectboard, including a recycling fee. “I have been seeing that trend in other recycling facilities,” she said.

While it now costs more to recycle plastics and paper, the public has benefited from programs under which manufacturers now pay the cost to recycle their products. At Bethel-Royalton, that includes fluorescent light bulbs, electronics, household batteries (which used to be thrown out as trash) and paint.

Other programs, including some new mandates, cost money. Having food waste picked up from Bethel-Royalton costs between $400 and $800 a month, so a charge to cover some of the cost was necessary, Bartleman said.

Likewise with recycling. Charging $3 per visit seemed like a straightforward way to help pay for the cost of having recyclables trucked away while also demonstrating to the public that recycling costs money.

These changes provoked some protest, both in the form of angry emails, to which Bartleman patiently responded, and some shouting in person. A sign on the sliding glass window where patrons pay has a sign on it that says, in part, “Please be patient and do NOT bang on the window or throw your money on the floor.”

Why someone would behave this way is hard to explain. People don’t want to think about their trash, and they’re often in a hurry, Bartleman said.

People using the transfer station on a recent Saturday morning were all over the lot when it came to the price increases. While several people said the higher prices and new fees were long overdue, others were mystified that the transfer station is even charging people, despite a giant red STOP sign telling patrons to present a receipt.

“Should we be?” Bethel resident Jordan Camp asked about paying for recycling. His landlord had told him that he could just take his recycling in for free, which was true until Jan. 1.

“It just seems, from my point of view, to be awfully expensive,” said Sharon Amato, of South Royalton, who brought in her trash in small kitchen bags, the cost of which adds up. The per-bag price didn’t change, but Amato can no longer lift the larger 30-gallon trash bags.

“I don’t know where the fee comes from, what it’s for,” said Trevor Best, of Bethel. “It kind of forces people to bundle their recycling.”

“I don’t think it’s fair that we’re being charged fees,” said Elizabeth Whooley, of Bethel. “I just think recycling’s the responsible thing.” If the state is going to mandate composting food scraps, “I don’t think we should be charged for it,” she said.

“It makes sense, financially,” said Richie Hackett, of Sharon. “They’ve got to take care of the cost of bringing the recycling elsewhere. It’s not an unreasonable amount.”

Paying more attention to how Upper Valley residents get rid of trash and recycling means it would likely cost less. Every year, recycling centers lose truckloads of revenue because people recklessly pitch unrecyclable materials in with plastics, metal, paper and other single-stream recycling, rendering those materials worthless.

“If we could collectively recycle better,” Marc Morgan, Lebanon’s solid waste manager, said in an interview, it “would be easier to craft more favorable contracts” with companies that sort recycling.

About a third of what ends up in recycling bins is garbage, Morgan said.

“There’s this concept out there called ‘wish-cycling,’ ” he said, wherein people throw into their recycling bins items that they hope are recyclable. “The cost of that decision is really high.”

Single-stream recycling, in which paper, plastics, tin cans and aluminum foil all go into the same hopper at the transfer station, is later sorted out by workers at what the solid waste industry calls a MRF (pronounced “merf”), a materials recovery facility. Bethel-Royalton’s recycling goes to a facility operated by Casella in Rutland, for example.

The recycling public needs to understand that their recycling goes through human hands, Morgan said.

“They get things like bowling balls, diapers, turkey carcasses, all kinds of crazy things in there,” he said.

That drives down how much transfer stations, and therefore the public, receive for recyclables. For example, glass recycling is meant only for food and beverage containers that have been rinsed out, not window panes, Pyrex cookware or mirrors. If a load from Bethel-Royalton, which ultimately ends up at a 3M facility in Canada, is contaminated, either with the wrong kind of glass or with metals or plastics, the first time, the facility gets a warning, Bartleman said. “The second time, you get a fine of $400. The third time, they won’t accept it anymore.”

With single-stream recycling, the public is put in a tough spot. Materials often have recycling symbols on them, even if they’re not meant to be recycled. Sometimes the symbol means that the item was made from recycled materials. Motor oil containers have a recycling symbol on them, but no one should be rinsing them out in their kitchen sinks and recycling them.

“Use the oil, put the cap on and throw it in the trash,” Bartleman said. “It’s one of those exceptions to the rule.”

As Jamieson, the Vermont official put it, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Tossing the right materials in the trash will ensure that the recyclables that still have good market value, in particular plastics marked with the numbers 1, 2 or 5, will be worth something. “The cleaner the material,” Jamieson said, “the higher price you can get for the material.”

Maybe then recycling won’t have to cost so much.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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