WELLFLEET — Of all the materials he handles daily at the Wellfleet Transfer Station, Renewliners are Michael Cicale’s biggest pet peeve.
These insulated packaging materials “might be great for shipping, but at the end of the day, the municipalities have to handle it,” said Cicale, the station’s foreman, as he helped residents sort their recyclables in a row of 30-foot-long compactors.
Supervising the sorting helps municipal transfer stations decrease contamination rates — the amount of improper materials in a recycling load. Less contamination makes recyclables more valuable.
And the recycling market, after a 2018 crash when China stopped accepting recyclables, has been making a comeback over the past year, according to Kari Parcell, Barnstable County’s waste reduction coordinator.
What there is to know about recycling, Cicale said, fits better in a book than a newspaper article.
A paperback book; hardcovers can’t be recycled, Cicale said.
Neither can a milk carton, he added, pulling one out of the mixed paper compactor. Even though the carton is printed with a recycle symbol, Cicale explained, the plastic interior prevents proper recycling at local material recovery facilities.
“Is it technically recyclable?” he said. “Yes. Is it recyclable here in our normal municipal system? No.”
When in doubt, Cicale said, diligent recyclers should turn to RecycleSmartMA.org, a Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) website launched in 2018 that includes a “recyclopedia.”
Even with the website, “there’s no master list,” Parcell said. She recommends talking to staff at your local transfer station for the status of what’s recyclable.
The Weight of It All
Wellfleet’s compactors fill up once a month in the winter and once a week in the summer, Cicale estimated.
Wellfleet collected 1,000 tons of trash and 488 tons of recycling in 2021.
Provincetown collected 2,711 tons of trash and 1,157 tons of recycling during that same period. DPW Deputy Director Sherry Prada said Provincetown produced 45 percent more trash and 41 percent more recycling in 2021 than in 2020.
Prada explained in an email that, in spite of the increase, the weight of the town’s waste is still only 62 percent of what it was in 2019. Prada guessed that reflects a decrease in business during the pandemic.
In 2020, Eastham collected 3,596 tons of trash and 570 tons of recycling, plus an impressive 25 tons of mattresses, according to a DEP database. Truro collected 1,047 tons of trash and 469 tons of recycling that year.
Unlike the other three towns, Wellfleet uses a “Pay As You Throw” program implemented in 2013. Designed to encourage recycling, reuse, and composting, the program has reduced the weight of Wellfleet’s trash by roughly 800 tons a year, Cicale said.
That’s a good thing, because removing trash is expensive. In 2012, Wellfleet paid SEMASS $18.50 a ton to remove its trash, Cicale said. The town now pays $97 a ton to New Bedford Waste for trash removal.
The Recycling Market
Provincetown uses single-stream recycling — where plastics, metals, and mixed paper all go in one bin — and sells to Casella, a recycling vendor. The town pays the company $45 per ton of recycling, though Casella sorts the recycling and pays the town six to eight cents per ton of cardboard, Prada wrote.
Single-stream recycling is convenient. But, said Cicale, “In a single-stream system, your contamination can be much higher, which means that less of your recycling might be actually recycled.”
Wellfleet uses a dual-stream method, where plastics and metals are separated from mixed paper. Cicale said Wellfleet’s contamination rate is under 10 percent, and the town actually receives payment for some of its recyclables. Wellfleet also gets a credit of $25 for each ton of mixed paper.
Recycling isn’t always profitable, but “it’s beneficial,” Cicale said. “It’s also a state regulation. I can’t legally throw it in the trash, even if I wanted to.”
China’s “National Sword Policy” limited recycling intake and crashed the market for recyclables in 2018. But national recycling prices began to rise in early 2021, according to the price tracking website Resource Recycling.
Transfer stations typically have short “handshake agreement” contracts with vendors, which help them “follow the market,” according to Parcell.
Parcell said that among the more profitable materials these days are scrap metals, corrugated cardboard, and newspapers, which seem to have intrinsic value even after they’re read.
The glass market has only recently come back after a 2018 crash, when the one processing plant in the state, Strategic Materials Company (STM) in Franklin, closed, Parcell said. Their decreasing supply, driven in part by the beer industry’s switch from glass bottles to cans, could not meet demand, Parcell explained.
The Wellfleet transfer station now pays a Dennis glass recycling plant $75 for each ton of glass, Cicale said. Through an aggregate program, if the Dennis plant cannot find a market for the glass, Wellfleet will receive in glass aggregate what they sent to Dennis as glass. The town can use this aggregate for pipe bedding in drainage projects, Cicale said.
Of that Cape-based solution, Cicale noted, “It’s a rare and wonderful thing when you don’t have to move materials over the bridge.”