Recycling and its challenges

Government is working with recycling companies and grocery stores to make it easier for people to drop off cans and bottles, keeping them out of the landfill. – Photo: Charles Duncan

Dart officials unveiled a series of recycling statistics, frequently achieved with the help of local recycler Junk, owned and operated by former MLA, Minister of Education and Deputy Premier Rolston Anglin.

Anglin supplies much of the glass and aluminum to Camana Bay, which crushes nearly 2,000 pounds of the former and 20 pounds of the latter every day.

The glass is used mostly as construction aggregate, in fill or in pavers, building facades and other concrete forms. The low-density, corrosion-resistant metal is generally shipped off island for use in transportation, and window frames.

As Camana Bay turns increasingly to LEDs, fluorescent bulbs are crushed in an Environmental Protection Agency-approved recycling machine, and then shipped to specialty companies the U.S. The practice keeps glass, phosphor, mercury and aluminum out of the George Town Landfill.

Recycling locally, however, is a difficult business. Because Cayman has no factories and no natural consumers to reuse old materials, Anglin says, “we have nothing that even approaches a situation where we can find a mill somewhere and say ‘hey, you are producing 20,000 tons per year and can you give us a fee” for recycled materials.

“So we have to go to other recyclers and sell it to them,” he said, naming Florida’s Sun Recycling, which calls itself “the largest independently owned recycler of construction and demolition material in Florida.”

With 10 locations in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties, according to Sun’s website, “we are focused on turning the highly recyclable materials that come into our facilities into usable products.”

Anglin was cynical: “Are they going to accept commodities from other countries? We have to cover operations and shipping, so we have to model our pricing to cover all that.”

The viability of the business depends on razor-thin margins for commodity prices: aluminum cans, cardboard, newspaper, glass and plastic.

Aluminum sells for 26 cents per pound and tin for 3 cents per pound, Anglin says. Because everyone uses it and aluminum is nearly 100 percent recyclable “it’s the only thing you can make money on.” No. 2 plastic sells for 12 cents per pound and cardboard for $90 per ton.

“Cayman produces no aluminum and all the beer is in glass bottles so it all goes straight to Dart’s crusher; they do it for free and it’s mostly just a hauling exercise for us – and there’s lots of water between here and Miami.”

Even the U.S. giants are in trouble. At a 2015 conference recycling executives lamented the fall in commodity prices, although trying to remain optimistic.

Still in the grip of global recession, prices for ferrous scrap took a “dramatic” tumble of around $100 dollars per ton while mills “were getting pressure on the price of finished steel, and the scrap market hadn’t corrected itself,” according to Drew Lammers, manager for Ohio scrap processing firm Cohen.

“We believe we’ve hit the bottom and this market is going to take time to work its way back up,” he said, noting noted that one of Cohen’s largest buyers went from purchasing thousands of tons of ferrous scrap per month from the company to zero tons in January 2015.

“As time goes on, these orders will come back,” he said.

David Steiner, president and CEO of Houston’s Waste Management, said his company hadn’t invested in recycling in the last two years, saying the company had to cover its processing costs. “This is a crisis,” he said.

Ron Mittlestaedt, CEO of Texas-based Waste Connections, said the cost of recycling was two times to three times that of landfill. He pegged recycling costs at $80 per ton versus only $30 per ton for landfill it. The added cost of recycling was not always passed on to customers.

Junk operates seven recycling centers, called “curbside depots,” at local supermarkets. Last year, the company collected 450,000 pounds of material, 60 percent of which came from the depots, Anglin says. Junk kept more than 100,000 tons of waste out of the George Town Landfill.

Contributing to expenses, however, is that someone has to collect, bale, compact and finally ship the material.

“We wanted a 10,000 square foot center and were going to put in a baler and can recycler for US$500,000,” Anglin says. “That’s what you need – a proper center – to be serious about recycling.”

In mid-January, government issued a request for proposals for eight recycling depots across Grand Cayman.

“The successful tenderer must provide all necessary facilities, equipment, labor, insurance, finances and services required to maintain depots, collect, process, and market recyclables … [Government] will share in the revenues received by the successful contractor,” the RFP says.

“The … depots … will accept … paper (including shredded paper, old newspaper and magazines), boxboard, old corrugated cardboard, [plastic types] #1 and … #2, aluminum, metal/tin cans and glass/ceramics.”

Government, the document said, would supply the 10 containers and 240 wheeled bins to collect glass and ceramics, but the bidder would be obliged for all maintenance on both the equipment and the site.

Bids closed Feb 12. Anglin has applied, but no decisions have been made.

Anglin is not sure government understands the economics of local recycling, suggesting it is too expensive for competition and calling on government to subsidize the effort.

“Someone has to pay for waste disposal and waste management,” he says. “Waste costs, and that’s why most countries just dig a hole and throw it in the ground.

“If government cannot make a deal, we are going to get out of the curbside business and stick with our private clients – strata and condos. We are just breaking even. We can’t continue to fund tens of thousands of dollars per month. Government has to subsidize waste management. They did say they would help so we have continued to hang on for the last six months.”

Government will take over recycling

Nancy Barnard, deputy chief officer for policy and planning at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Health and Culture, said, “Discussions are being held to see if the bidder can run the new depot recycling program within the proposed government funding,” conceding that “a smaller island” posed unique challenges.

“Most of the recyclables will need to be shipped off of Grand Cayman to be recycled and this really is not a problem, other than it greatly reduces the net revenue received for the commodities shipped, and thus makes it less attractive for the private sector to get involved in the recycling business.”

She pointed out, however, that even in North America most material is not recycled where it is collected, but must be shipped elsewhere

“The bigger challenge,” Barnard said, “is collecting sufficient materials for a shipment.”

A 40-foot container of baled, recyclable material is needed for a shipment, she said. One bale of aluminum cans weighs 1,000 pounds, and approximately 24 cans make a pound.

“So it takes 24,000 aluminum cans to make a bale, and you typically need 25 bales to fill a sea container, so for one container you would need to collect something like 600,000 cans, which takes a long time just to collect the quantities required to ship something off islands,” Barnard said.

Despite the economics, however, Barnard said government would step in to run a recycling program should the private sector prove unable to sustain the effort.

“If we cannot reach an agreement with the private recycling firms, government is committed to setting up and running the new recycling program operated by the Department of Environmental Health,” she said.

She pointed to long-underway plans for an “Integrated Solid Waste Management System” and the “National Solid Waste Management Strategy,” unwieldy names for a program to “reduce, reuse and recycle” the waste that has expanded the George Town Landfill, started in 1980, to cover, and render useless, nearly 75 acres of prime real estate

The landfill stockpiles 225 tons per day of all types of solid waste and recyclable products. Slightly more than half that total is new solid waste. The landfill manages roughly 56,000 tons of waste per year, with a recycling rate of 14,800 tons per year.

The Department of Environmental Health recurrent annual budget is $8.3 million, $6.5 million of which goes to solid waste management. The budget for the department’s Environmental Health Section is $1.8 million.

“The recycling depot program … will be part of the future Integrated Solid Waste Management System for the Cayman Islands,” Barnard says, funded by garbage collection fees.

At the Department of Environmental Health, Mark Rowlands, assistant director for solid waste, said the time that the Integrated Solid Waste Management System was consuming indicated “the enormity of the situation,” and that it would encompass “planning for the next 50 years and require $100 million worth of equipment.”

The documents, he said, had gone out to the public for commentary, and the next steps “were down to the options we want to pursue, and reviewing operational systems.”

Government was in “final contract negotiations with a local company to remove nearly 2 million tires – roughly “one tire per person per year in the Cayman Islands” – and hoped to see work begin “in the next couple of months.

“We are starting the process of getting rid of the metal,” Rowlands said, referring specifically to “cars, derelict vehicles, trucks and appliances,” while navigating some of the legal issues that dogged past efforts.

He was unable to say however, when work would start: “There is a lot of material and a lot of companies that are interested.”

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