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Towns Crack Down On Curbside Recycling Violations As Costs Soar

LOWELL (CBS) - Recycling correctly is more important than ever because it is costing cities and towns more than ever. WBZ spent a morning with DPW crews in Lowell and recycling violations were easy to spot.

Crews pointed out plastic bag after plastic bag, hula hoops, Dunkin' coffee cups, paint rollers, wood, and pizza boxes still filled with leftover pizza. That is just a small sample of some of the items mistakenly placed in those curbside recycling bins.

Recycling bin pizza
The problem with pizza boxes? The leftover pizza inside. (WBZ-TV)

So why were public works crews sifting through those bins?

"We could be on the hook for $500,000," explained Gunther Wellenstein, the city's Recycling Coordinator.

For the first time, Lowell is now paying to haul away their curbside recycling. The city faces a hefty fee if too much non-recyclable stuff winds up at the recycling processing facility.

It's not just in Lowell. Costs are up in communities across Massachusetts. Worcester expects to shell out $2.9 million this year, up $360,000. Quincy didn't pay a dime last year and now pays $300,000. Prices in Framingham and Cambridge have doubled in the past year.

All these rising costs could eventually be passed on to residents. "That's on the table right now," Wellenstein said.

To keep that from happening, Lowell DPW crews are now pre-checking the large curbside bins of material before they are collected and sent to recycling facilities. They are also handing out warnings or even $25 tickets for recycling violations.  Lynn has a similar program and Quincy is planning to start one this summer.

When the recycling barrel gets picked up, the material heads on a truck to a processing facility like E.L. Harvey in Hopkinton.

Recycling facility
Recycled material from curbside pickup ends up at a processing facility like E.L. Harvey in Hopkinton. (WBZ-TV)

"It's harder to find homes for that [recycling] material. Now you have to get rid of it at a cost usually," said BJ Harvey, Vice President at the recycling and waste management company.

The bulk of our recycling used to be shipped to China, but last year China stopped taking those imports and that recycling pipeline is not expected to return.

"We still have material outside from January 2018, well over a year old," explained Harvey while pointing to a mountain of paper taking over a corner of the parking lot.

There are still decent markets for aluminum, plastics, and cardboard, but to get top dollar the loads have to be clean. Now the race is on to revamp the whole recycling process.

"The research in this area is growing because of the problem," Meg Sobkowicz-Kline told us. She is an Associate Professor of Plastics Engineering at UMass Lowell.  In the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, researchers and students are working on better ways to recycle.

"We want to be able to have those plastics… have a second life and a third life," she said.

Thin red strings that spin out of a tall machine used to be plastic bottles. Now shredded, they can be used to make clothes. The team is also developing more efficient ways to recycle old plastic bags into new ones, and to create bio-based versions that can break down on their own.

"We know great things can be done with plastics, but we also need to care about what happens to them at end of life," said Sobkowicz-Kline.

Now that recycling is second nature for many of us, the amount of recycling being processed piles up fast. In just a couple of weeks, the recycling of 20 towns easily filled a large corner of the massive processing facility at E.L. Harvey. It's all material that Harvey has to sort and then try to sell.

Recycling facility
A mountain of recyclable material dating back to early 2018 takes over part of the E.L. Harvey parking lot. (WBZ-TV)

Even with the shrinking recycling markets, Wellenstein said recycling is here to stay.

"At this time, even with this cost, the material in the recycling container costs less per ton to get rid of."

At least for now. In the meantime, be mindful of what goes in the bin.

"The three R's are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. So, in theory recycle is the last choice."

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