County Recycling Program Is Worth It
With revenues devastated by Covid-19, municipalities are scrutinizing budgets to identify the essential services and the nice-to-haves. In doing so, it is informative to look at the County’s waste management program, especially when some have tried to argue that recycling should end or that it is a financial burden. On March 6, 2020, this paper ran an article entitled, “The County Recycling Ripoff: Should Rye Stop?” The article’s author, Howard Husock, argued that curbside recycling collection is not worth the cost to Rye residents. However, Mr. Husock’s analysis of the economics of Westchester County’s recycling program was woefully misinformed. Mr. Husock’s argument failed to grasp that curbside recycling collection is but one aspect of a vast environmental management program that benefits not only our environment, but also saves money for Rye.
The County operates Refuse Disposal District No. 1, comprised of 36 of the County’s 43 municipalities, including Rye. The District is home to over 90% of the County’s population and residents contribute a small solid waste tax. Refuse District municipalities are responsible for collecting residential curbside recyclables and the County then collects these items from Rye’s recycling yard, processes the materials at the County’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF), and markets them to recyclers at no cost to the City. Mr. Husock concluded that Rye would benefit financially from opting out of the Refuse District and disposing of recyclables as garbage, or sharing in the revenue generated by the sale of the recyclables. Let’s take a closer look at his conclusion.
As a member of the Refuse District, Rye pays only $29.28 per ton to dispose of garbage and pays no fees for the handling of recyclables. This rate is highly subsidized by the District. If Rye were not part of the District, it would cost the City approximately $95 per ton dispose of its garbage, and the processing for recyclables would require Rye to build a recycling facility or pay a private company the market rate to process the recyclables. If the City were to cancel its recycling program and attempt to dispose of recyclables as garbage, it would be in violation of the Source Separation Law. Last year, Rye collected 5,261 tons of garbage and 2,205 tons of curbside recyclables. The City paid about $152,325 to the District for processing, transportation and disposal of the garbage, and nothing for processing the recyclables. In comparison, if Rye adopted Mr. Husock’s proposal and disposed of this material on its own as garbage, the City would have paid approximately $709,270, plus fines for not recycling. Being part of the District saved Rye over $550,000.
Cost savings on garbage and curbside recyclables is just one way the Refuse District saves money for municipalities, the District offers a myriad of environmental programs that make economic sense. Rye avails itself of a highly subsidized disposal fee for organic yard waste. Last year, the District recycled 2,752 tons of grass clippings, leaves, and brush collected in the City of Rye. The City paid $48,490 for this service, which on the private market would have cost about $123,700. This amounts to a savings of over $75,000 for Rye. The District also provides the Rye recycling yard with a container to allow residents to drop off electronic waste. This service saved the City an additional $10,000 last year.
There are many more environmental programs offered by the District that Rye residents enjoy, and that save taypayer funds. The District provides drop-off sites for expired and unused medications, makes the County’s shredder trucks available for events that ensure the confidential destruction of personal documents, and collects boat wrap for recycling (there are three participating marinas in Rye).
The District also operates the Household-Material Recovery Facility (H-MRF) in Valhalla, which provides a free outlet for all District residents to dispose of items not typically collected curbside, including household chemicals, cleaning supplies, fertilizers, pesticides, tires, appliances, electronic waste, medications, and other items. The H-MRF also offers document shredding services. Moreover, the District holds four Household Recycling Day (HRD) Events each year (unfortunately the first two 2020 events were postponed in response to COVID), which offer residents the opportunity to dispose of the same items collected at the H-MRF. One of these events is conducted at Rye Playland, offering Rye residents the convenience of disposing of these items right in their own hometown. If Rye were to hold this event on its own, it would come with a price tag of over $100,000. Both the H-MRF and the HRD Events save residents hundreds of dollars in disposal costs for many potentially harmful items that would otherwise languish in basements, attics, and garages, or pollute the waterways.
Mr. Husock claimed the County “is profiting from recycling” at the expense of municipalities. This could not be further from the truth. While the District still sells all of the recyclables it processes, the recyclables market is in a deep recession in the wake of China’s National Sword policy, which restricted the import of these materials. In fact, although District municipalities pay zero dollars for their recyclables, on its own Rye would have to pay for recyclables processing – not profit from it. Mr. Husock should be aware that the Refuse District is a separate taxing entity from the County, and as such, none of the revenue realized from the sale of recyclables goes back to the County. Instead, recycling revenue is reinvested in the District to cover the cost to process, sort, separate, and bale recyclables, to maintain equipment, fund the programs discussed here, and create new programs. One such program from the County’s Department of Environmental Facilities will provide municipalities the opportunity to recycle food scraps for a below market, subsidized cost, providing further financial relief for participating municipalities. As for Mr. Husock’s concern that Rye’s recycling collection vehicles need replacement soon, he should know that New York State currently offers a 50% reimbursement grant for municipal recycling equipment.
Mr. Husock proposed an alternative of disposing of recyclables in a landfill. This is one more argument that misses the mark. Westchester County’s Refuse District does not landfill one ounce of residential garbage. All garbage collected by the municipalities within the District is transported to the Resco Energy From Waste (EFW) Facility in Peekskill. EFW uses the waste as feedstock in a clean burn process to generate enough electricity to power 67,000 households and residual steam produced by the process powers a privately-owned laundry service. Also, EFW generates considerably less potent greenhouse gas emissions compared to landfills, yet another benefit of the County’s waste management program. It is important to acknowledge the environmental benefits that the County’s programs offer, because let’s face it, that is the impetus behind recycling in the first place. It’s universally accepted that we all benefit from the reuse or recycling of countless items compared to the harvesting of virgin materials.
As you can see, instead of the “ripoff” described by Mr. Husock, the County’s waste management system is a “green” bargain that serves as a model for county governments throughout the region. One that will preserve vital municipal funds for other essential services.
- Louis J. Vetrone
Deputy Commissioner, Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities