Derry Transfer Station is full of neatly organized stacks of everything residents don’t want. Old sofas, abandoned Halloween decorations, and tidy mounds of plastic, cardboard, glass and aluminum.
Mike Fowler, Director of Public Works for the City of Derry, says it hasn’t always been that way. In 1991, the city passed an ordinance making recycling mandatory, just as the transfer station built in the early 1980s began to overflow.
The aim was to reduce the amount of waste that had to be put in a landfill or incinerator.
“Everyone just threw it in cans or bags, and it all went in the garbage stream,” Fowler said. “But over time people figured out that they could pull their paper or cardboard apart, and we started to find markets for it and made some money.”
He says the money helped the city offset taxes. And right now, Derry and other cities are making a lot of money from recycling. Fowler says the prices municipalities can get are about double what they were four years ago, which is good for the bottom line of the City of Derry budget.
It’s a big change. Not that long ago, some cities were considering shutting down their recycling operations.
In 2018, China made the decision to stop accepting a lot of recyclable materials – especially those that were contaminated – from the United States and other places. This left communities across the United States scrambling to find markets where they could sell their recyclable products.
“The last time a lot of people heard about recycling was that recycling was dead, recycling wasn’t working, and communities were stopping recycling,” said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of Northeast Resource Recovery Association.
She said there are a number of reasons the recyclables market has improved. One of the reasons is the pandemic.
Bissonnette says large companies and schools have stopped producing large amounts of recyclable material, and as they stopped receiving these reliable shipments, national paper mills were willing to pay more for local recycling. She adds that these paper mills have seen a lot of investment lately.
“We are really developing a more robust national infrastructure for recycling, which should be able to absorb any additional raw material that arrives as businesses and schools come back online,” she said.
In recent years, other changes have made recycling more stable in New Hampshire.
A few years ago, it cost Hooksett twice as much to recycle as it did to just send the waste to the landfill. Like many communities, Hooksett had a one-stream system, where people put the mixed recycling in bins that the city picked up. The city changed this to a system where people sort their own recycling at the landfill.
Denise Cumings, team leader at the Hooksett Transfer Station, says she has seen a positive response from residents.
“The residents have gradually become very good at coming here, and especially at bringing their box,” she said.
Cumings says their recycling is now cleaner and is making Hooksett more money. And the landfill has become a kind of community space. Dozens of Tonka trucks line the walls of the recycling building, and abandoned Christmas decorations are given new life. There is a garland hanging above the station for the cardboard box, which has become especially valuable as people have started ordering more products online.
Carton prices were as low as $ 25 a tonne last year and hit $ 155 last month, Cumings said.
“When I get checks for $ 30,700, it comes back to the city,” she said.
In Gilford, aluminum cans have surged. The price the city could get for 10 tonnes of cans has nearly doubled over the past year, from $ 7,000 to $ 13,000, said Meghan Theriault, director of public works.
Plastic has also seen increases as the price of oil has risen. Plastics are made from petroleum, and things like old milk jugs were selling well in the fall.
Kevin Reed is a Hookset resident who comes to the transfer station with his dog. He says coming here gets him out of the house, and that feels good.
“I have a child. I think it helps a lot, so hopefully I’m giving it a better, better world. I don’t look good, but I can do my little part, ”he said.
Even with widespread recycling programs, New Hampshire residents still send over a million tonnes of trash to landfill each year. The expansion of landfills has been controversial in the state, and it all has a certain way of thinking differently about the way we handle our waste.
Marc Morgan, Solid Waste Manager for the City of Lebanon, looks beyond recycling. Its transfer station compostes food waste and offers advice to help households reduce both waste and recyclable waste.
“Here in Lebanon, for three or four years, we have been promoting the idea of reducing waste to eliminate waste – not generate it in the first place,” he said.
Morgan says recycling prices are pretty good right now, but he’s already seeing them starting to stabilize. With changing international markets and supply chain disruptions, the entire industry is going through big changes, he said. And like other markets, prices always fluctuate.
Morgan and Bissonnette are part of a new state commission, the Solid Waste Task Force, which is planning the future of New Hampshire waste management. The group has until 2026 to submit its final report, but will submit a first report in just under a year.
Morgan believes recycling will always be an option for Granite Staters. But, he says, reduction may become the buzzword of the day.