The County Recycling Ripoff: Should Rye Stop?
By Howard Husock
There is no doubt we feel virtuous when putting out our recycling bins. It feels as though we’re saving the planet with each can or bottle left at curbside. And, to some extent, we are, especially when it comes to high-value items such as aluminum cans.
One would think that the City is saving money this way, as well. After all, it’s costly to send unsorted garbage to a landfill.
But a closer look at the economics of Westchester County recycling makes clear that it’s a bad deal for the City of Rye and other municipalities. In fact, it would cost us significantly less not to sort our recyclables and just send our mixed-up garbage to the County, to then be sent to a landfill. That’s because Rye taxpayers bear the costs of recycling pickup, while the County gets the revenue from selling recyclables on the private market and avoids landfill fees in the process.
Here’s how it works.
To pick up recyclables, Rye incurs a number of expenses. First, there’s labor. Rye Interim City Manager Grey Usry reports that salaries, benefits, and workers’ compensation attributable to recycling operations cost $530,000 annually. In addition, the City must buy and maintain two special trucks, both of which, Usry notes, “are nearing the end of their useful life and will have to be replaced.” New trucks of that kind can cost $150,000. Not only is all this expensive but it turns out that, when the City picks up the contents of your blue bins, it is actually subsidizing the County, over and above the hefty tax payments Rye residents already pay.
Here’s how. After recyclables are collected at the Department of Public Works yard, the County picks them up. The price recyclables command has declined significantly since 2017 when China announced it would no longer accept them from the U.S. (Too many of the plastics, especially, it said, were not clean and not easily recycled). But the County is still able to sell the 130,000 tons it receives annually. While its sales revenue has dropped from $5.9 million in 2017, the County still realizes $2.8 million from sales, aided by the fact that it separates glass, metal, and paper into separate “streams”. That more than covers the County’s estimated $2 million in recycling-related costs. In addition, the County enjoys large “avoided costs”. Sending those 130,000 tons to a landfill would cost more than $90 per ton.
While that’s great for the County’s budget, it doesn’t help Rye or other municipalities at all. That’s because the County pays the City zero dollars for our recyclables, which we collect at our expense. The County, in other words, is profiting from recycling, while it’s a money-loser for cities and towns.
The head of the County’s Department of Environmental Facilities, Lou Vetrone, notes that the City does avoid paying the $29 “tipping fee” the County charges the City for general refuse. That’s a good deal for the City when compared to the $90 per ton the County pays. But the City, despite our significant pickup costs, doesn’t actually collect that many recyclables. In 2019, according to the City Manager’s office, we collected just 2,286 tons of recyclables (1,470 tons of paper, 732 tons of glass and plastic, and 81 tons of metal). Paying the County to dispose of that, at the $29 per-ton rate, would cost the City just $68,580 and would require no new recycling trucks and special crews. It would be a rare instance of Rye getting something for our County tax dollars — a below-market trash disposal fee. As it stands, the County avoids paying some $200,000 to dispose of Rye’s recyclables if they were just part of “mixed garbage” — a cost-savings on top of its revenue from the sale of materials.
Of course, many of us (including my own household) want to do our part to save the planet and we recycle everything. And there’s a way to make it work: The County needs to share the $2.8 million in revenue it receives from the sale of recyclables with the 35 Westchester municipalities in the Refuse Disposal District (which collects part of our County taxes). Many communities less affluent than Rye with larger populations would receive a larger share. All are already paying County taxes and should not have to see their budgets labor under what amounts to an unfunded recycling mandate.
In short, the County should start paying cities and towns for our recyclables to help cover the cost of picking them up. Or, as seven Westchester County municipalities already do, we could simply strike our own trash and recycling deal with a private company.