"The recycling market has been moved up to the front burner of our stove," said Paul Moreson, executive director of the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority.
The CCCSWA serves the towns of Danville, Lafayette, Orinda, Moraga, Walnut Creek and unincorporated Contra Costa County. The authority works with waste haulers to provide garbage service to the residents of those areas. It also has made arrangements with two recycling processing plants to handle the waste that can be diverted from the landfill.
In the past several weeks as the economy has been hitting the skids so, too, have businesses both here and abroad. This is having a direct effect on the recycling centers' ability to process the waste coming in.
"The recycling market is down," Moreson said. "The recyclables that are coming in from the 680 corridor are piling up. With the downturn in the market the processors are warehousing the stuff. That adds to the cost, which increases the difficulties they are having in selling it."
One of the processors used by the CCCSWA is Pacific Rim recycling in Benicia. CEO Steve Moore said that six weeks ago they could have gotten somewhere in the area of $200 per ton for mixed paper. But as of last week, Pacific Rim was selling off a mountain of surplus recyclable paper for only $10 per ton.
This has made for a real hardship for Pacific Rim. "The cost to process it is more than we can sell it for."
Moreson said the market for recyclables has always been volatile but the complete slowdown is something they've not seen before. Much of the problem comes from the economic meltdown affecting China. "There are ships sitting offshore in China bringing loads of fiber in that have no market."
Many consumer products purchased in the U.S. and other countries are manufactured in China, which buys mixed paper being recycled from all over the world to reprocess and make into packing materials. But the market for packing materials has declined along with the manufacturing.
How will this affect consumers locally? Moreson said the revenues from the recycling go into the authority's Diversion Incentive Fund.
"That's the portion of the budget that we use to make diversion or recycling programs," he explained.
Two programs currently being developed by the authority would take medical waste out of the landfills, as per state mandate. Another would divert food waste from restaurants.
"Almost 20 percent of the total waste stream is restaurant food waste," Moreson said. "We are developing a program where the restaurants don't contaminate the food with paper and other waste and we send it to the East Bay Municipal Utility District to put in their digesters."
In normal economic times, the fund receives from $1.2 million to $1.8 million annually. Moreson said he is not expecting to see revenues come in at that level if the market stays down.
This leads to a serious question that will affect the authority: If no one is buying the recyclable waste, where can it go? Moreson said they are meeting with waste haulers and processors to try to find a way to keep the recyclables moving.
"We're trying to develop a response to this that will keep this stuff out of the landfill," he said. "If we have to start paying to landfill it, it will just exacerbate the issue."
Moreson added that state law mandates that 50 percent of waste be diverted. "If there's no market there's no way to do that, it's a perfect storm," he said. "The economy leaves us with nowhere to send the solid waste, the state says it can't be landfilled. We're trying to put together processes to weather this storm."
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