Drop-off center needs new revenue as prices drop
The collapse of recycling’s business model, both in the Methow Valley and across the country, presents Betsy Cushman, executive director of Methow Recycles, with what she called a “new normal.”
For people who use the drop-off center on Airport Road in Twisp, this might mean paying a little out-of-pocket to drop off paper, plastics, cardboard or cans. For government officials, this means considering ways to help Methow Recycles.
“Now there is very little money to be made in recycling,” Cushman said. “It doesn’t come close to paying its own way, and it’s not going to anytime soon.”
Revenues at Methow Recycles have fallen off a cliff in 2019. The price per ton of pre-sorted recyclables went from $100 in 2018 to $40 this year.
The recycling center has partially offset the downturn in prices by asking people more directly for a donation when they use the facility.
Methow Recycles also has certain financial advantages. Volunteers put in more than a quarter of the organization’s work hours, and the nonprofit pays $1 per year to lease the county-owned property where the drop-off center is located.
Even so, operations at Methow Recycles aren’t sustainable in the long term under the status quo. Cushman figures her primary job over the next few years will be to figure out a new funding model for Methow Recycles.
“I don’t know yet what the full answer is,” Cushman said in an interview on July 26. “But I’m willing to look under every rock.”
Cushman had the same message when state District 12 Rep. Mike Steele (R-Chelan) visited Methow Recycles at her request on July 25.
“It’s our mission to do this, so we’re going to keep working to figure it out,” Cushman told Steele and Twisp Town Council member Mark Easton, who toured the facility with Steele.
China is closed
The collapse of the recycling market in the United States is a matter of supply and demand. Simply put, the supply of recyclable material in the United States suddenly skyrocketed, after China mostly closed its ports to waste from the United States and other countries in January 2018. A few years ago, China had been accepting 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste, according to a report by NPR.
Since China’s fateful decision in early 2018, the recycling market has only gotten tighter. Countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, which had been taking some of the materials that China had rejected, also decided to stop accepting foreign waste.
After China’s decision, the Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology Center (SMaRT), which takes the Methow Valley’s unsorted recycling, started charging a fee of $60 per ton. Before, depending on the strength of the market, local recyclers would get a small rebate of $5 or $10 per ton for commingled recycling.
SMaRT steadily increased its fee, which is now $101 per ton. This cost is borne by WasteWise Methow, which provides curbside pickup of commingled recycling to residents and businesses in the Methow Valley.
Costs at WasteWise have gone up 75% due to the SMaRT fee, with no offsetting increase in revenues, General Manager Casey Bouchard said.
WasteWise will ask the state to approve a “modest” rate increase that should go into effect in March or April of 2020, Bouchard said. WasteWise hasn’t raised rates since it started offering curbside pickup of recyclables in 2013.
Focused on quality
Since Methow Recycles can’t compete with the bigger recycling outfits in volume, it has always strived for quality. In the recycling business this means that a bundle of cardboard isn’t contaminated with other types of paper, plastic wrap or pizza grease. Cushman credits community members for separating materials so diligently.
“It’s remarkable our community has embraced that, which keeps this going,” she said.
In the tighter market, however, the bigger players are trying to catch up on quality. How does a small recycling producer such as Methow Recycles avoid being squeezed out of the new recycling economy altogether?
For now, fundraising is the only other option the nonprofit has for making money. But Cushman reached out to Steele and the Twisp Town Council to ask for government help.
Steele was impressed with Methow Recycles’ operations and appeared ready to author legislation that would expand the center’s grant opportunities.
“I am really willing to get innovative when it comes to grant programs” that help rural areas, Steele told Cushman.
Steele and Cushman discussed changing the rules for the type of grant that supports recycling operations. The Methow Valley never sees any of this grant money because the state weighs applications based on population.
Methow Recycles’ rural location creates additional costs, for shipping out recyclables and for servicing equipment, Cushman said.
Council member Easton encouraged Cushman to speak to both the Twisp and Winthrop councils, to see how they might be able to support Methow Recycles. Easton suggested she gather some good data about who uses the drop-off center. After all, if she is going to ask for Winthrop’s help, she needs to be able to tell town leaders there how many Winthrop residents use the service.
Cushman has already been easing people into paying a fee at the drop-off facility — an approach that has a ready precedent. For years, people who drop off glass at Methow Recycles have been asked to pay into a container set up by the large bottle Dumpster.
In addition to conveying the message that recycling will no longer pay for itself, Cushman also would like people to think beyond recycling, in order to nip our waste problem in the bud.
Cushman highlighted recent programs at Methow Recycles, such as the roving Repair Cafes, where volunteers repair clothing or small appliances for free. More recently, Methow Recycles opened a tool library and a “Take It or Leave It” tent, where people exchange housing materials.
“If this financial situation doesn’t prove anything else, it proves we can’t recycle our way out of the waste we generate,” Cushman said. “We have to take every opportunity to use less.”
Where your recyclables go
Despite the squeeze in the recycling market, nothing dropped off at Methow Recycles or picked up as recycling by WasteWise goes to a landfill. Here’s a partial list of where recyclables go and what they become after leaving the valley:
• Frosted or colored plastic bottles: British Columbia; granulated or converted into irrigation materials
• Plastics Nos. “3-7”: British Columbia for sorting
• Aluminum cans: Tennessee or Alabama.; new can sheet, auto parts, etc.
• Tin cans: Pacific Northwest; rebar
• Newspaper: 95% Pacific Northwest, 5% export; more newspaper, egg cartons, apple trays
• Mixed paper, cardboard: Pacific Northwest
• Glass: Strategic Materials, Seattle; new glass bottles and jars
• Electronics: Certified processors in Washington for disassembly and recycling
• Printer cartridges: Little Star Montessori School fundraiser, then sold to be refilled or recycled
Source: Methow Recycles