BRATTLEBORO — Windham Solid Waste Management District keeps on its toes, responding to market changes that affect its revenue streams.
The newest adjustment involves recyclables with the numbers three, four, five, six and seven on them. The district's Board of Supervisors has decided to suspend those items from its recycling collection.
"We have not had luck lately finding a buyer for those plastics," said WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer. "We did for a couple of years but the price of oil has gone down, which is the source of most plastics. The demand for recycled plastics for the industries that use it to make new products has declined."
Plastics featuring numbers three through seven can hold things like shampoo, cooking oil, margarine and pancake syrup. But plastics in the category of numbers one and two must be recycled now under Vermont's Universal Recycling Law known as Act 148. These containers can hold soft drinks, peanut butter, milk, butter and detergent.
The plastics no longer being accepted would get about 1 or 2 cents per pound, Spencer said. The other category brings in 20 to 40 cents per pound.
Revenues for all recycled materials have gone down over the last two years, said Spencer. He attributes the decline to the world economy.
"A lot of the recyclable paper and cardboard was going to Asia and China," said Spencer. But then China established a new policy, halting a large amount of this importation. "Finally, they said they were not going to be taking all of this recyclable material from Europe or the United States because they were so contaminated and they were of very poor quality."
Called the "Green Fence" in America, Spencer said the policy required the district to take photographs of bales of recyclables before being delivered to China. While never rejected, a specific number was put on each of their trailer loads for tracking purposes.
Spencer pointed to newspapers and books moving to the form of electronic media for the declining market for paper. Also affecting the district's revenue were the large amount of towns and cities, not just in Vermont, having more recyclables being diverted and there being more outlets for doing so.
Last week, Spencer sent a letter to local select boards saying the district no longer wants recycling boxes to receive plastics with numbers three to seven on them.
"To help with that, we've asked that the transfer stations like the ones in Wilmington and Dover to have their attendants inform customers," said Spencer, who also sent over new sheets of information to towns to spark the conversation and put up sandwich boards relaying the message at the district's drop-off recycling bins in towns without transfer stations.
Plastics numbered three through seven were only recently accepted for recycling by the district. About five years ago, Spencer said, the district found there was a market for them. And by eliminating confusion around what plastics could be recycled, there was an idea that people might recycle more all-around and the district would increase its collection of the more-valuable plastics. That didn't pan out though.
"People probably were pretty good at recycling," said Spencer.
The district tracks its budget monthly. Revenues are staying close to what was budgeted, Spencer said. Due to staff cuts and a couple new sources of revenue, the district's budget had an 11 percent decrease in assessment payments. It was approved in January.
"(Revenue) has not stabilized. They're still dropping," Spencer said. "We've seen an interest in use of our dual stream MRF (materials recovery facility)."
With the closure of a similar facility in Massachusetts that had served a lot of southern New Hampshire, he said the district started taking in two New Hampshire towns' recyclables and another one could be next. Then Rockingham and Weathersfield are non-members who pay for the district's recycling service. Somerset is the newest town to enter the district, becoming a member in December.
In January, Stratton converted to single-stream recycling. The district removed its drop-off recycling bins from the town's transfer station.
"That's the first of our 20-member towns to convert to single stream and not use our MRF services. We can't take single-stream," said Spencer. "We looked into converting but it's going to cost at least $2 million and we don't have enough tons coming in to justify it."
The move at Stratton is "probably a favorable decision," said Spencer, because the town had "such a small amount of materials and it's a long drive for our drivers." Factoring in hauling costs made the town's assessment-contribution marginal. But Stratton will remain a member of the district so it can still use its other services.
In Vernon, where single-stream was also adopted when the town went to Pay-As-You-Throw curbside recycling in 2013, Spencer said just as many tons of recycling were being dropped off in the district's bins.
"We were quite surprised," said Spencer, a member of Vernon's Recycling Committee.
To cut down on overtime for district employees, the district reduced the hours of its Convenience Center. Starting on March 1, a half hour from both the opening and closing times were shaved off. Now, the center is open 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday.
Another change to help cut down on overtime saw the district contracting with Triple T Trucking to take occasional loads of co-mingled recyclables to Triple T's transfer station Brattleboro Salvage. This will happen after holidays and busier times of the year, according to Spencer.
"This is a way for us to not have to do overtime with our MRF sorting," he said. "It's not a lot but it's some."
Now, there's a committee looking at an alternative fee-for-service model for the district. Town officials in Brattleboro had voiced concern over what they felt was an unfair billing system as the town offers curbside recycling to residents. Town officials questioned whether the district bins at Fairground Road were still necessary. Currently, towns are given assessments based on population.
"We're getting into the nitty gritty of the fee-for-service discussions now," said Spencer. "It's going very well."
A meeting on Thursday at 5 p.m. at the district's office on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro will see the committee looking at household hazardous waste collection, which Spencer said lends itself to a fee-for-service model. The committee has also looked at trucking and collecting recyclables, composting, Convenience-Center recycling and the MRF.
The goal is to have a recommendation ready by June.
"But we may be done sooner than that," Spencer said. "It will probably be controversial."
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.