Bins to bales: Recycling 'still working' despite fiscal stress
Newspaper and cardboard were flattened and bundled and left on the curb alongside a container of cans and bottles. Loose paper went up in flames in a backyard barrel. The rest of the garbage — including scraps like leftover bits of vegetables — became a fresh meal overnight.
"The pig farmer literally picked it up and fed it to the pigs. His farm was on the road up to Providence," said Bob Gwin, a 75-year-old Gales Ferry resident describing his days growing up in Barrington, R.I.
Now Gwin, a retired Electric Boat engineer, and his wife, Laurie, a retired nurse, toss their trash into a town-provided plastic black bin, and their recycling — a medley of materials ranging from newspapers, coffee cups, cardboard, plastic food containers and juice bottles — in a big blue bin picked up every other week by Willimantic Waste Paper Company.
But Gwin frequently wondered where the recyclables wound up, especially after noticing his eldest daughter's Oregon community uses four different kinds of waste bins instead of two, and reading news stories over the last year on nationwide recycling and scrap market upheaval after China stopped buying paper, plastic and metals that weren't almost perfectly pure — uncontaminated by garbage, foam or food waste such as gunk clinging to a cardboard container or sauce in the bottom of an otherwise recyclable jar of Ragu.
Gwin recently asked The Day a winning question as part of the CuriousCT series: "What really happens to all the material gathered in our recycling barrels? Where does everything in the single stream go?"
The answer for Gwin and other area residents — who might subscribe to a curbside pickup program or whose towns, like Ledyard, contract with Willimantic Waste through the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority — depends on the material, its quality and market conditions.
After processing by Willimantic Waste at its facility at 185 Recycling Way, cardboard food packaging that the Gwins may have picked up at Stop & Shop could wind up at the Rand-Whitney Containerboard facility in Montville. Glass — largely lacking value because it's often broken and dirtied by random goods in the "single stream" — travels by rail to a recycler in North Carolina. Trailers haul plastic to processors and recyclers in Pennsylvania or Canada, or to New York and New Jersey ports shipping material to South Korea. And paper makes its way to mills in West Virginia, Canada or 9,000 miles away in Malaysia.
"There used to be more paper mills and glass manufacturers here in Connecticut. They left the state for a variety of reasons," Willimantic Waste President Tom DeVivo said.
Items that don't make the cut — "bottle caps, to-go cartons covered in grease that ends up contaminating other recyclables" — are incinerated in SCRRRA's Waste-to-Energy plant in Preston, said Tom's son, Ben DeVivo, a former trash-slinger turned customer service supervisor who also helps manage information technology at the Willimantic facility.
The Preston WTE plant, operated by global waste management company Covanta Energy, disposes of almost 700 tons of municipal solid waste daily while producing 18.4 megawatts of renewable energy.
"We don't need to be ashamed that we have garbage. We are American consumers. So be it," Tom DeVivo said, noting trash collection services make up the biggest chunk of his business. Residential recycling only accounts for about 20 percent of Willimantic Waste's bottom line "but when prices are up, it can be as much as 70 percent."
But with loss of competition and demand, combined with China's tighter restrictions, recycling prices have plummeted over the last several years, DeVivo said.
"Recycling is more than just putting it at the curbside," he said. "It's going out and demanding that we buy things made of recycled materials."
Over the last seven years, the town of Ledyard has recycled, on average, about 1,411 tons of material, with an upward trend since 2014, Public Works Director Steve Masalin said this past week.
The mix of junk mail and plastic containers in Gwin's 50-gallon recycling bin, picked up by a specialized truck with an automated arm that dumps the material in with other residents' recyclables, is just a fraction of the 1,200 to 1,500 tons Willimantic Waste processes every week.
Last Thursday, dumpsters capable of holding 20 to 100 cubic yards of material, weighing between at least 2 and 20 tons, lined up at the Willimantic Waste scale house. After weighing in, drivers headed to one of the 50-acre site's barns, buildings or yards, depending on the type of material they were carrying — everyday recyclables, metal shavings, mattresses, tires or bulky waste like couches, electronics or piles of broken vending machines.
Recyclables like Gwin's wound up in a colorful, pungent 30-foot heap of folded-up cases of beer, ripped-up magazines, half-crushed milk cartons and water bottles and salad packaging, plus the occasional nonbiodegradable single-use plastic bag that several communities have banned outright. A staffer photographed the material from each dumpster, ensuring the pile was mostly garbage-free and providing feedback — and eventually warnings and fines — to towns whose recycling turns up too contaminated.
A busy payloader then wove through the pile, shoveling material onto the facility's humming, warehouse-size sorting machine, where more than two dozen yellow-vested workers stood watch over a series of interconnected conveyor belts, first plucking out large items, and plastic film and bags, and later dividing varieties of cardboard, plastic and paper based on the type of bales plant foreman Jose Cruz had called for.
Optical and air-pressure scanners, and rapidly spinning metal and plastic screens, separated materials into varying conveyor lines, discharging them into bins for baling or letting them fall into piles to be run through the sorter again and baled in the future. Controlled by an iPad app, the system ends with an automated chute pushing out bale after bale of crushed plastic strapped with wire. The machine pumps through 250 to 300 bales a day.
"This is my new machine, I love it," said Cruz, smiling and spreading his arms toward the baler, noting the previous unit required an operator. "It's automated with Wi-Fi, it does everything."
The bales were separated by material — newspaper, clean office paper, cardboard, bottles and cans — and stacked before being forklifted into trailers or rail cars. As a final check, a staffer knelt at multiple bales and picked out material that may have been garbage.
"It's got to be clean," said Cruz, who retired from the U.S. Army and joined Willimantic Waste almost 20 years ago. The single-stream process has provided greater safety and simplicity for workers, Cruz and Ben DeVivo said, but it's also contributed to more contamination.
"Contamination in the mixed recycling stream has been an acute problem, about 11 percent of what is picked up," said Dave Aldridge, executive director of SCRRRA.
Ben DeVivo, who sometimes goes to schools and towns to educate people on proper recycling, noted that while recycling has risen, quality has gone down, because not enough people know what's recyclable and not enough people clean off their material before chucking it into bins.
"You ever heard of wishcycling?" he asked. "You throw your little bottle caps, your straws away, and you're hoping, wishing, that it gets recycled. But really, we pull them out and it ends up in the garbage and incinerated. If you're able to keep those products out, it makes it easier for us to get recyclables where they need to be."
SCRRRA, which recently has undertaken education and outreach measures on recycling, manages an online app called "what goes where," a search engine for questions about items people want to dispose of.
The nonprofit RecycleCT Foundation, where Tom DeVivo sits as a board member, also promotes research and education, and provides grant opportunities related to recycling, reuse and waste reduction.
"Business has changed as consumers changed," Tom Devivo said, noting his grandfather started the business in the 1930s, focusing on rags, paper, scrap metal and tires. The company, constantly diversifying, now is entertaining getting into the composting business, he added. "We're always looking for new markets. You always hear the good times don't last forever, but neither do the bad times."
Bits of crushed glass are separated from Willimantic Waste's sorting system and flow onto a conveyor belt behind a warehouse. The glass is processed in an AirMax Material Density Separator, a 42-horsepower machine built by New Hampshire-based Continental Biomass Industries that separates heavy materials from light — in Willimantic Waste's case, bits of paper and other waste are blown into a bin while heavier glass is piled and readied for rail transport to North Carolina-based glass recycler Strategic Materials.
Paper often heads to pulp and paper mills in West Virginia, Maine and Wisconsin owned by Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons Paper Group. Styrofoam from Bob's Discount Furniture is processed at a Franklin facility and later sold to China, Cruz said. Willimantic Waste also receives and bundles titanium shavings from New York and ships them to Mega Metals Inc. in Arizona.
Willimantic Waste strips at least 100,000 mattresses annually, crushing the metal, sending the wood to Greenleaf Power plant in Plainfield and baling and selling the foam and plastic. Due to legislation passed a few years ago that created a $9 recycling fee on mattress purchases, residents can drop off their mattresses at transfer stations for free.
"Nothing is wasted," Cruz said.
But some materials from residential and commercial recycling wind up in on-site storage trailers, awaiting a resurgence in the worldwide scrap market.
Recycling revenues for towns like Ledyard are nowhere near what they were back in 2012, Masalin said, when the town earned $42,138 for 1,337 tons of recyclables. In October 2011 the town earned a high of $46.05 per ton. For every ton recycled, rather than disposed of as trash, SCRRRA-contracted towns also save on the $58 per-ton tipping fee for trash.
But because of the fallout in the recycling market, Ledyard and the other SCRRRA-contracted towns have been receiving the minimum contractual payment of $5 per ton for recyclables for about the last five years. Ledyard in 2018 earned about $9,800 for almost 1,650 tons.
Willimantic Waste has been absorbing the cost of the $5-per-ton payments, Masalin said, which is the only reason SCRRRA towns still are receiving revenue rather than paying to recycle material. SCRRRA and Willimantic Waste are hammering out a new contract that will start Nov. 1, 2019, which "will most certainly involve a cost per ton for recyclables versus a revenue, though it may include provisions for restoration of revenues as future market conditions dictate," Masalin added.
"They're very fortunate to be in the contract," said Lee Sawyer, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Many towns going out to bid for recycling contracts already are paying up to $80 per ton, he said.
"The recycling system in Connecticut is still working," Sawyer added, noting the state recycles about 35 percent of its waste, a figure that's stayed flat for the last few years. That's higher than the national average, which was 25.8 percent as of 2015, the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency.
"However, the costs associated with the downturn in commodity markets are being passed along to residents," Sawyer said. "It's a real fiscal concern for municipalities as they're trying to balance very tough budgets."
State leaders are pushing for legislation that would require producers to issue recommendations to the General Assembly that might help reduce costs to municipalities, including stewardship programs in which producers may pay for portions of recycling costs.
"We'd like stakeholders, industry members, haulers and recyclers to get together and ... help move the system in a more sustainable direction," said Sawyer, who added that the state is working with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to schedule summer forums on recycling and education.
Gwin, learning some details about what happens with his recyclables, said knowing that "a little bit of effort on my part in terms of sorting and cleaning would make a difference, I'll probably do that. We can do better."