Metro city ends curbside recycling amid rising costs, changing market

Clarkston City Council voted earlier this month to suspend curbside recycling pickup amid rising costs for the service.

Every week, Janice Stayshich follows a precise routine that has become second nature for many of us: sorting out what can be recycled, and what has to go in the trash.

The Clarkston resident is so diligent that most weeks, she says, her recycling bin is more full than her trash container.

This week, though, Stayshich’s bin was empty. The container itself was set to be picked up Monday by the private waste company with which Clarkston contracts. That’s because the City Council voted earlier this month to suspend curbside recycling pickup amid rising costs for the service.

Instead, Clarkston plans to set up a citywide dropoff location while it considers ways to revive its weekly recycling pickup. The decision follows a national trend of municipalities ending or altering their recycling services, illuminating the local impacts that shifts in the international recycling market can have.

Stayshich said she plans to shift her routine and drop off her recyclables while curbside pickup is halted.

“It’s old habits,” she said. “I feel like then I’m doing my part in something. It’s a very rewarding feeling.”

Recycling is picked up in Atlanta last year. CONTRIBUTED BY PHIL SKINNER

In 2018, China severely limited the scrap materials it accepts from the United States, upending the global market for recyclable waste. Recycling processors have also become more stringent when it comes to what they will accept, raising concerns about contaminated recycling, officials and experts said.

The company Waste Management has provided trash and recycling services to Clarkston residents since 2008. Heading into 2020, the company informed the city that it wanted to increase the pickup fee by $36 a year, according to city documents. Officials decided to instead stop the service while it searches for alternatives, setting the 2020 waste collection rate at about $129 for its approximately 900 customers.

“This is heartbreaking,” said Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who was the state director of the Sierra Club for three years and is running for U.S. Senate. He said adapting to a changing waste management market has become “a preeminent challenge for every city.”

Waste Management proposed increasing the rate for recycling pickup in Clarkston because of “changing market conditions” surrounding recycling processing, company spokeswoman Marla Prince said. That includes tightened requirements for what residents can toss into their recycling bins.

“In general, the entire recycling industry has moved to a model to cover increased processing costs as more non-acceptable items enter the recycling stream,” Prince said.

Clarkston joins a growing list of U.S. cities that suspended curbside recycling pickup over price increases over the last year, including Jackson, Mississippi and Sunrise, Florida. Waste Dive, a publication that specializes in recycling news, tallied more than 60 cities and towns that canceled curbside recycling.

Others changed what they do with their recycling, like Philadelphia, which for about six months sent half of its recycling to an incinerator that converted the materials to energy.

Recycling trucks will no longer trek through Clarkston, at least for now. CONTRIBUTED BY PHIL SKINNER

The issue largely stems from China, which banned imports of scrap paper, plastic and other recyclable materials. For years, China bought tons of scrap recycling from the U.S., processing it and turning it into new materials.

That decision put pressure on domestic processors, which have increased their costs in order to combat "contamination" in the recycling bin, according to Natalie Johnston-Russell, the executive director of the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation.

Contamination occurs when food waste or other non-recyclable materials make their way into a batch. That sometimes means that a whole truckload of recycling could be taken to the landfill.

“Contamination certainly can ruin a larger batch,” Johnston-Russell said, adding that things like plastic bags and Styrofoam need to be separated from other items and recycled separately. She acknowledged that “it can get confusing for anyone.”

Clarkston resident Jan Riley said many of her neighbors are “disappointed” that curbside pickup is ending, “except that most of us know the stuff isn’t actually getting recycled.” She said residents should buy more products made from recycled goods to expand the domestic market.

Clarkston isn't the only Georgia community feeling the impacts. In Athens-Clarke County, the cost for the government to process recycling exceeded revenue last year for the first time, the Athens Banner-Herald reported.

In addition to Clarkston’s central recycling dropoff location, residents can visit the recycling center at Your DeKalb Farmers Market. Terry said the city is thinking about contracting with DeKalb County to provide trash and recycling pickup services in the future. That’s a move that has become increasingly popular over the last year, as the cities of Doraville and Stone Mountain have switched from private companies to the county’s service.

DeKalb, meanwhile, has shown no indication it is getting rid of recycling, with a county spokeswoman citing the “ever-increasing recycling customer base,” which now totals more than 105,000 homes.

Many believe more public awareness is needed to remind residents what they can and cannot put in the recycling bin, reducing the risk of contamination. Stayshich, meanwhile, plans to continue dolling out recycling tips wherever she can.

“At my son’s house, they’re not as meticulous as I am about it,” she said. “I’m always getting on their case.”

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