Regional recycling program at risk with Chesterfield, others pulling out

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/5/2019, 6 a.m.
Chesterfield County is poised to pull out of a regional curbside recycling program, which could require Richmond and Henrico County ...

Chesterfield County is poised to pull out of a regional curbside recycling program, which could require Richmond and Henrico County to boost their subsidies to maintain the program.

The decision could come as early as Wednesday, April 10, when the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a new 2019-20 budget that includes no money to support the county’s share of the recycling program’s cost, beginning July 1.

County officials estimated in information to the board that Chesterfield would need to spend about $767,000, or more than triple the $231,000 budgeted this year, in addition to the $1.87 million being collected from about 75,000 participating households that pay $25 yearly for the service.

Chesterfield pays a share of the cost based on the total of 95,000 households that could participate in the recycling program, although 20,000 have opted out.

At this point, there is no indication that the board is prepared to add funds to continue participation in the 29-year-old Central Virginia Waste Management Authority.

Already, six smaller localities have dropped out during the past year as charges increased. The loss of Chesterfield County would be a huge blow, Kimberly Hymes, CVWMA executive director, acknowledged.

“The county makes up more than one-third of the total regional curbside recycling program. So if Chesterfield were to completely pull out of curbside recycling, it could trigger a re-negotiation of our contract” with Chester-based Tidewater Fibre Corp., or TFC Recycling, the private company that collects, sorts and markets most of the area’s recycled materials.

The surge in recycling collection costs has been fueled by a sea change in the business. After years of warnings, China, previously the world’s biggest market for used paper, metals and plastics, last year essentially stopped accepting such items because of high contamination and a desire to promote more recycling of domestic waste.

Most U.S. recycling firms, including TFC, could not meet China’s new standard of 5 percent contamination or less by other waste in their shipments.

The ripple effects already are being felt in this area, although CVWMA has largely been mum. The company’s main focus has been on pressing households to stop dumping garbage and dirty materials that cannot be recycled into recycling bins.

This week, CVWMA made its first public disclosure that it had re-negotiated its contract with TFC last year as the firm began losing money. The loss of China caused domestic and other foreign markets to become saturated, forcing prices of materials to drop. The backlog of unusable recyclables grew as countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and India that began accepting products quickly found themselves overwhelmed and began reducing or cutting back scrap imports.

India, for example, will shut off scrap plastic imports in August.

Beginning in March 2018, CVWMA allowed TFC to end the $20 per ton rebate it was reimbursing localities for recycled materials. The regional group also allowed TFC to impose a $30 per ton surcharge.

Overall, the seven localities now in CVWMA — Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, Ashland, Hanover County and Goochland County — have seen costs triple, from a collective total of $536,888 in fiscal year 2017-18 to $1.76 million in fiscal year 2018-19.

Petersburg, Hopewell and the counties of Prince George, New Kent, Charles City and Powhatan dropped out of CVWMA.

In its proposed 2019-20 budget, Richmond reported its costs for curbside recycling grew from $1.6 million in 2017-18 to $2.2 million in 2018-19. Last year, the City of Richmond, with City Council approval, quietly raised the recycling charge to 61,558 households with recycling bins from $2.50 a month to $2.99 a month, or from $30 a year to $35.88 a year, to handle the increase.

The city Department of Public Works estimates the cost for curbside recycling will rise to $2.7 million in fiscal year 2019-20, but apparently plans to absorb that increase as no request appears to have been made for an increase in the recycling fee.

Henrico County, which subsidizes the recycling expense for its approximately 85,000 households to participate, absorbed a $594,000 increase in its recycling program costs. Still, the proposed budget for 2019-20 indicates that residents will continue to receive free service.

Ms. Hymes of CVWMA did not estimate how much more localities might have to pay once Chesterfield drops out and removes 10,000 tons of recyclable material from the stream that TFC picks up and processes.