Utahns across the Wasatch Front soon may shoulder an increase in the monthly fees they pay for recycling — a reality prompted by changing global conditions that mean it now costs many cities more money to recycle waste than to send it to a landfill.
The Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District, one of the largest residential waste and recycling collectors in Salt Lake County, is asking its customers whether they would support continuing recycling services with a cost increase of $1.50 a month.
That’s an extra 75 cents over the cost of sending all items to the landfill.
The survey ends Monday, but Pam Roberts, the district’s executive director, said the results show early support so far, with more than two-thirds of the 5,700 community members who had responded as of July 22 indicating that they favor recycling.
“They understand the long-range importance for sustainability and not just the cost,” Roberts said of that outcome. “They’re looking past the short-term costs and [looking at] the long-term costs. And I think that was our hope. Don’t just think about right now. Think about the long range if we put everything into the landfill — what that does environmentally, but also what it does costwise. We’re going to have to ship it out somewhere.”
Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling’s service area includes Cottonwood Heights, Herriman, Holladay, Millcreek, Taylorsville, portions of Murray and Sandy, the metro townships of Copperton, Emigration, Kearns, Magna and White City, and unincorporated areas of Salt Lake County.
The municipalities represented on the district’s board are awaiting the results of the survey before they make changes to garbage fees, Roberts said, and any increase to the current $17 a month base fee would likely be made for fiscal 2020.
Millcreek warned residents in a newsletter earlier this month that its recycling service may be at risk of being discontinued. But Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he’s heard from his constituents who don’t want that to happen.
“It’s very important to them,” he said. “I think people are distressed about the status of recycling in our world these days, and I think everybody’s hoping we can find solutions. So that’s why we, as a city, want to focus on educating our residents so they recycle properly, and we don’t end up sending stuff to the landfill.”
While cities used to get paid for their recycled materials, many now have to pay to recycle due to changing economic conditions in China, which takes much of the world’s recycling exports and has begun cracking down on high contamination rates in the United States.
NOT RECYCLABLE IN WASATCH FRONT WASTE AND RECYCLING CANS:
• Food waste.
• Plastic grocery bags.
• Plastic films.
• Unbagged shredded paper.
• Food wrappers.
• Cloth items.
As much as a quarter of the material people throw in the blue bins reserved for recycled materials is either not recyclable or contaminated with food, dirt or liquids.
Disposal costs at the Salt Lake County Landfill are currently $32.85 per ton, according to the service district, while Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling has been paying as high as $68 per ton this year for recycling. Any waste in the recycling stream can significantly impact those costs, which affect collection fees paid by residents.
Municipal members of the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District are far from the only ones who may face fee increases. Cities that contract with processors face their own decisions about curbside costs.
The West Valley City Council, for example, upped its recycling fees last year and began allowing residents to opt out of the service in an effort to reduce contamination.
More recently, Ogden halted its recycling program with Recycled Earth over a 47 percent increase in tipping costs — contract negotiations that are still ongoing, according to city spokesman Mike McBride.
“Basically, overnight they had increased the fees,” he said. “It was significant enough for us to cancel the program temporarily.”
Even some school districts have faced consequences as a result of changing recycling costs. Weber School District announced last year that it would cut back recycling efforts at all 50 of its schools and office buildings in an effort to save money.
RECYCLABLE IN WASATCH FRONT WASTE AND RECYCLING DISTRICT CANS:
• Junk mail.
• Paper bags.
• Office paper.
• Paperboard boxes.
• Empty aerosol cans.
• Aluminum cans.
• Steel cans.
• Plastic drink bottles.
• Plastic food bottles and jars.
Utah’s capital is considering a waste and recycling cost increase for residents, though any changes in Salt Lake City would come more as a result of inflationary costs than global changes, according to Sophia Nicholas, a spokeswoman for the city’s sustainability department.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s final budget proposal originally had included a 9.5% increase on residential trash collection rates on the largest garbage cans and 42.9% for recycling. The council, however, voted to delay any rise until the city could conduct further public outreach, which Nicholas said will likely come in the form of a survey sent to residents this fall.
Salt Lake City is one of the municipalities in the state that audits residents’ recycling bins, deploying a team every weekday morning before the recycling trucks go out to dig through cans in an effort to keep trash out of the recycling stream. The city’s waste stream is cleaner than many cities its size, but about 20 percent of the items residents put in their blue bins in 2018 still ended up in the landfill.
“The good news is that we have seen our contamination improve, particularly with plastic bags and plastic film, but that still is the No. 1 issue that we’re dealing with that affects our costs,” Nicholas said. “And so we just want to thank people for paying attention and encourage them to keep recycling what is listed as accepted and recyclable on our website.”
When there’s waste in the stream, the city pays not only to recycle goods but also a daily fee for nonrecyclable contamination.
As Utah cities weigh economic forces against the long-term benefits of recycling, Nicholas said global forces don’t necessarily spell doom for the service.
“The way I see it, it really is an opportunity for us to get recycling back to where it needs to be,” she said. “It plays a really critical role in our waste management system, but we need to be recycling what is recyclable and not just wishful recycling, thinking [waste] will go away.”
Clarification: Updated at 3:07 p.m. on July 30 >> This article has been updated to clarify that Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling can recycle only plastic food and drink bottles and shredded paper if it is bagged.