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City at a recycling crossroads

Faced with increasing costs to operate the city’s curbside recycling program, members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners are questioning whether the present system can — or should — be maintained.

“I’m not saying we do away with recycling,” the board’s Chat Hutchens said when it met last Thursday night and approved a new materials-handling contract for the service.

“But I just think we need to look at some other options.”

Hutchens and fellow commissioners subsequently voted 4-1 (with Marie Wood dissenting) to award a new contract to Green For Life Environmental Inc. (GFL) the company that presently hauls away recyclables collected curbside by municipal sanitation personnel.

Yet that prevailing support was lukewarm, with Hutchens wanting clarification beforehand that the new pact with GFL — while running five years — does contain a clause allowing it to be severed by the city government with 60 days’ notice.

It’s about the numbers

The renewed agreement with Green For Life reflects the inflationary impacts now gripping consumers, especially where goods or services related to vehicle transports are concerned.

GFL has been charging Mount Airy $60 per ton to handle recycled materials such as paper, aluminum and others since late 2019, which dates to Foothills Sanitation and Recycling performing that service until being acquired by GFL in 2020.

But under the new recycling services agreement that goes into effect on July 1, the municipality must begin forking out $75 per ton. Under that cost, coupled with a $300 hauling fee per load and another fee which gives GFL the option of adding 3 % to the total, the city government is now looking to pay $78,300 annually for the recyclables handling.

City sanitation personnel pick up about 650 tons of those materials each year from local customers.

And the payments to GFL don’t tell the whole story.

After Commissioner Tom Koch posed the question, City Manager Stan Farmer said the total cost to Mount Airy for recycling — figuring in its own manpower and equipment expenses — has been about $135,000, including the cost for GFL.

Under the new agreement, that will jump to about $175,000.

This is in contrast to the days — as detailed in a presentation by city Public Works Director Mitch Williams — when Mount Airy profited from recycling.

Beginning in January 2012 when the city launched curbside recycling and continuing to 2018, it received more than $25,000 annually for the materials generated.

“And we were saving the world,” Mayor Jon Cawley said regarding the environmental benefits of the practice.

“However, in January of 2018, China banned the import of mixed paper and mixed plastic,” Williams related, and later took other steps that virtually eliminated it as a market for recyclables.

Thus, a well-intended move by a small town in North Carolina effectively was undermined by international economic forces beyond its control.

The higher charges by GFL might seem drastic, until considering proposals by two other materials handlers which also bid on the city’s contract.

Republic offered a $95-per-ton price, and the third company, Waste Management, $68 a ton.

Though less than GFL’s $75 figure, Williams pointed out that Waste Management will not haul materials, meaning the city government would have to buy trailers and transport the recyclables to its facility in Winston-Salem.

The final nod went to GFL, partly due to its past performance in handling Mount Airy’s materials, according to the meeting discussion.

Looking to future

The present situation has Mount Airy officials scratching their heads about the end game.

“It’s difficult to justify that amount of money,” Hutchens said of the total price tag for Mount Airy to provide the service which will now approach $200,000 per year overall.

Commissioner Wood, a retired accountant, offered a similar view in casting the dissenting vote.

“I think we need to do something differently,” she said. “This is getting out of hand.”

Wood suggested that one option might be charging city residents for the recycling service, while acknowledging almost in the same breath that this would be an undesirable option. “I hate to do that.”

“This has become a problem for our city,” Mayor Cawley commented.

He wants to schedule a series of public meetings for city residents to weigh in on the matter and determine “if this is something we want to pay for,” Cawley said of the present scenario with recycling.

“We want to hear from citizens.”

Meanwhile, the public works director confirmed that a decision by GFL to no longer accept glass items for recycling — begun in January — will continue under the new agreement.

The list of acceptable items does include newspaper, mixed paper, old corrugated containers/cardboard boxes, aluminum containers, steel containers, plastic bottles and other plastics



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