• Economics of recycling: How much does it really cost?

    By: Richard Belcher

    Updated:

    ATLANTA - A Channel 2 Action News investigation puts a cost on the increasingly popular “single stream” recycling programs run or overseen by three local government agencies.

    The programs in the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County have net costs of well over $1 million per year, but the recycling programs offered by Cobb County’s private sanitation contractors cost the county less than $50,000 last year for administrative costs. 

    Officials in all three governments call recycling “the right thing to do,” and offer no suggestion that the programs are going to be reduced.

    Single stream recycling is the most popular with the public. It allows households to combine glass, metals, firm plastics (not including dry cleaning and grocery bags) and papers into one container.

    A contractor sorts the materials before bundling and re-selling them.

    The problem is the dramatic drop in the cost of oil over the past year is making recycling less economical. 

    That’s because oil is used to manufacture plastics, and lower costs for new plastics mean less demand for recycled plastics.

    That change is clearly visible in figures provided by the Atlanta Department of Public Works to Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher.

    In October 2012, the city received $41,598 for its recycled materials. But by April 2015, that had become a $2,276 loss. By November of last year, the loss was $25,536.

    For the 12 months ending last November, the losses totaled $131,726. During that period, the city reported recycling 15,672.18 tons of materials.

    DeKalb County Sanitation Director Billy Malone told Channel 2 that DeKalb continues to receive $7.80/ton for single stream recycling.

    Malone said the county collects about 450 tons of single stream each week, which county drivers deliver to a collection center off Memorial Drive. 

    At that site, it’s loaded onto larger trucks and hauled to a private contractor in Rockdale County for sorting and resale.

    Malone says nearly 70,000 DeKalb households participate in the recycling program, up from about 27,000 households six years ago. 

    But the popularity of the program does not make for a better bottom line. That’s because it costs $95/ton to haul the materials from homes to the first collection point and then on to the private sorter in Rockdale County.

    That’s a cost or loss of $87.20/ton. During calendar 2015, that amounted to $1,393,282.

    The negative numbers are even more pronounced in Atlanta where the Department of Public Works told Belcher the cost of hauling a single ton of recycling is $111.90.

    That means just the hauling from December 2014 through November 2015 cost $1,753,717. Add in the $131,726 loss the city reported on the sale of the materials during that same period, and the total cost was $1,885,443.

    Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza acknowledged, “Recycling, across the country historically, has not been envisioned as a profit machine.” 

    About the current drop in the value of recycled materials, Mendoza said, “The market is very volatile. There are periods of time when the city can receive revenues and other times when we do not.”

    But he remains committed.

    “The simple reason for recycling is it’s the right thing to do,” he said. 

    We heard strikingly similar remarks across the metro area.

    Belcher asked Cobb County’s Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, “If it’s a money-loser, why do it?”

    Responded Jenkins, “It’s the right thing to do for the environment.”

    And from DeKalb County’s Billy Malone, “It’s the right thing to do.”

    Two students who take part in a weekly paper recycling at DeKalb County’s Murphey Candler Elementary summed up the views of many young people who are taught from an early age that recycling is vital -- with little or no examination of the cost.

    Said one, “It’s the right thing to do because you can re-use things, and it won’t pollute the earth.”

    A second added, “It’s helping to be cleaner, greener, helping it to be better for the environment.”

    illy Malone says his county’s participants are, “passionate about what we do. I believe they want to be the responsible environmentally concerned citizen.”

    Cobb County’s Jonathan Jenkins wouldn’t speculate whether the program will ever break even or make a profit, but his government has far less at stake because the recycling arrangements are made between private citizens and their private haulers.

    However, Cobb has dramatically reduced its costs to administer the recycling program.

    In 2012, the cost was $628,548. By last year, the cost had dropped to just $45,701.

    Channel 2’s investigation did not analyze the other forms of recycling that are offered in the metro area. Those include the recycling of organic materials, such as grass clippings, hedge trimmings and leaves.  

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