New solid waste management fee is latest ripple effect of changes to recycling industry

File photo illustration

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

With no good solution in sight to the challenges facing Harrisonburg’s (and pretty much every other community’s) recycling program in recent years, the city will enact a new solid waste management fee structure effective Jan. 1, 2021. For many city residents, it will actually result in modestly lower payments, with the current $15-per-month solid waste management fee falling to $11 per month.

On the other hand, commercial customers and apartment complexes that utilize private waste collection and complied with certain requirements will no longer receive a $10 monthly credit that lowered their solid waste management fee to just $5. Beginning Jan. 1, these customers will also be charged the same $11 per month.

Public Works Director Tom Hartman said the change is a direct result of China’s 2018 decision to ban imported waste that upended the business model for the American recycling industry.

“We always knew we needed to go back and amend our program to remove that credit option because private recycling programs are no longer available,” said Hartman. “We couldn’t have customers that were paying less [by] receiving a credit.”

As public works staff re-examined the rate structure for solid waste management, Hartman said, it became clear that removing the monthly credit option allowed the city to lower the overall fee for residential customers, who will pay a total of $24 per month for trash collection starting next year. That figure includes the new $11 solid waste management fee.

The city recently mailed a letter explaining the new fee structure. However, with limited space to fully explain the changes, Public Works’ Support Services Manager Harsit Patel said the department has received numerous calls from confused residents.

“There’s only so much we can put on the page,” Patel said. “We went back and forth while we were writing it to see if it made sense, but the truth is when you’re writing about something you work with every day, it may be clear to us, but not so much for other people.”

The solid waste management fee subsidizes costs for several services provided by the city’s public works department, including daily operations for the Recycling Convenience Center and Mobile Recycling Units.

Since the recycling industry changed drastically in 2018, city residents have only been able to recycle materials by dropping them off at either the convenience center or one of the mobile units. And #3 through #7 plastics now end up in the landfill.

According to Hartman, the value of recyclables is now based on quality instead of quantity, as was formerly the case. While the city continues to work with several recycling companies, staff are still on the hunt for a place to send some materials that are now difficult to dispose of.

“Since the China Sword policy and everything becoming stricter, [recycling] can only go certain places,” Hartman said. “We are now a quality-driven organization when it comes to recyclables. So, the cleaner, higher-quality recyclables we can produce, the better chance we have of finding a marketable vendor.”

Barring some new, drastic change in the recycling industry, Hartman doesn’t foresee a return of curbside recycling any time soon, while noting that conditions can be hard to predict.

“We could hear [that #3 through #7 plastics] come back or the other plastics could go away,” he said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of finding that good vendor that’s willing to take our product.”

Although recycling has become less convenient over the past two years, Hartman said many in the city have remained committed to the cause.

“We have a very vibrant community that takes environmental protection very seriously,” he said. “Harrisonburg has really stepped up, in my opinion, to make the convenience center and mobile unit successful and take some of that waste out of the landfill.” 

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