The declining market for recyclable materials and the COVID-19 pandemic have led Starkville officials to rethink the usefulness of having a recycling program for the city.
Starkville suspended curbside recycling pick-up in March as a cost-saving measure due to the pandemic and gave participants the option of dropping off their recyclable materials at the sanitation building on North Washington Street. Since then, the city has actually had to pay more than it did before to get rid of the materials, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk said.
The city will suspend the recycling program entirely at the start of Fiscal Year 2021, on Oct. 1, a budgetary decision in response to the ongoing pandemic. Only about 10 percent of city residents have signed up for recycling, said Sistrunk, who chairs an ad hoc committee that formed last year with the goal of improving the recycling program.
“It not only didn’t turn a profit, it was losing money, and when the people who pick up and haul our materials away raised their rates, it just became untenable,” she said.
Starkville had a free citywide recycling program until 2009, when it started collecting from paying customers who put out their recyclables in city-issued bags or bins, funded by a $25,000 grant from the state. The grant has since dried up and the market for recyclable products has dwindled, Mayor Lynn Spruill said.
“Even if we had a grant for bins, that doesn’t change the fact that recycling has no market,” she said. “If they’re not turned into goods or something, there’s no point in recycling.”
The national and international markets to sell different recyclable products are all different and therefore fluctuate individually, said Rob Graham, owner of the GoBox waste management service in Lowndes County, which hauls recyclables in the county and Columbus. The ability for entities such as cities to cover the cost of hauling fluctuates with market prices, he said.
“Columbus and Lowndes County have been willing to realize you can’t run a recycling program just off what you can sell the recyclables for,” Graham said. “They pay us to collect them, we sell them and give a rebate back based partly on transportation. … It doesn’t cover all of the cost, but they’re willing to participate financially to offer (recycling) to the community. It’s hard for a recycling program to stand on its own just based on the value of what you collect.”
Starkville’s program tried to do just that. The city has a contract with Waste Management to haul the recyclables to Tupelo, and the cost has gone up from about $40,000 to about $60,000 this year, Sistrunk said. Revenues, on the other hand, total about $24,000.
“That doesn’t include anything other than the contract fee and raw revenue,” she said. “It doesn’t get into what it costs us to send crews in trucks to pick up (curbside) recycling.”
Starkville used to send a truckload of recyclables to Tupelo once a week but does so twice a week since the suspension of curbside pick-up, which explains the increased hauling costs, Environmental Services Director Calvin Ware said.
People who have not signed up for the program have been depositing recyclables at the dropoff site anyway, Sistrunk said.
“If we continue (dropoff service), we’re going to have to find a way to ensure the people who are dropping off recycling are actually paying for it, and we’re going to have to make sure that we generate enough revenue to cover the contract service of having it picked up and hauled away,” Sistrunk said.
Monitoring dropoffs would not be an easy endeavor, and raising the cost of participation from the current $2 per month might cause some customers to drop out of the program, “so it’s a Catch-22 at the moment,” Sistrunk said.
Waste Management representatives would not comment for this report when reached by The Dispatch.
Meanwhile, Columbus has never run its own recycling program. Before its contracts with GoBox and the local Waste Pro USA office, it had a curbside pickup contract with BluBox, a division of Triangle Maintenance Service in Lowndes County, which has since gone out of business.
Columbus discontinued curbside recycling pick-up in 2013, when Waste Pro USA stopped providing that service. However, the city and Lowndes County have a recycling dropoff program through the contract with GoBox, city spokesman Joe Dillon said.
Columbus pays GoBox $8,300 per month but gets part of it reimbursed by Lowndes County, Dillon said. GoBox handles the hauling of recyclable materials, so the city and county do not field that cost, and citizens do not have to pay for the program.
‘The nail in the coffin’
Dillon and Graham both said house-to-house recycling pick-up would be significantly more expensive and is not economically viable in a small city and rural area, as Starkville has seen.
Both population and population density affect the profitability of curbside recycling, since it costs less to collect more materials in a denser area, Graham said.
“If you’re driving half a mile between households, it’s hard to make it work,” he said.
While Starkville has only one dropoff location, there are several in Columbus and a few in the rest of Lowndes County, including New Hope High School and the Caledonia Volunteer Fire Department. Locations in the city include the Hitching Lot Farmer’s Market, Gateway Shopping Center and Joe Cook Elementary School.
“We were very careful about where we located the containers, and most people pass them on the way to work or something like that,” Dillon said.
Sistrunk and Ware said Starkville has seen higher levels of contamination in its recyclables since March, but customers in Columbus clean their materials before dropping them off, Graham said.
“People are pretty respectful of the fact that if they contaminate a load, a lot of times it contaminates decent recycling,” he said.
Participation is not limited to Columbus and Lowndes County, Dillon said.
“We’ve seen cars from outlying cities, some from Alabama that might not have (recycling programs),” he said. “We want to have recycling available for everyone.”
Columbus Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said a sense of personal responsibility plays a role in the success of the recycling program.
“People need to be more conscious about their litter and about their trash, so like anything else, it starts at home,” Gavin said.
Sistrunk agreed that keeping trash out of the environment is up to individuals.
“We tend to forget that when recycling came to be such a thing 30 to 40 year ago, it wasn’t ‘recycle, recycle, recycle,’ it was ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,'” she told the rest of the Starkville aldermen at the Aug. 28 work session.
She told The Dispatch the public would have to view recycling as a service in order for the program to succeed. The ad hoc committee in November recommended that the board of aldermen invest in a print and digital marketing campaign for the program and make it easier for people to sign up. Online signup was not an option, and people had to sign up in person with the sanitation department.
Sistrunk said these recommendations did not come to fruition.
In the meantime, Starkville continues to look for a company that will contract for curbside pick-up but has not had any luck, she said.
“The nail in the coffin for me was that we could not find a commercial entity that was willing to take this role on,” she said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.