Hampton Roads’ new trash plan draws criticism from recycling industry

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Hampton Roads’ pending deal with a new trash hauler has the recycling industry worried the new arrangement, while promoted as less costly for residents, could dramatically alter how people recycle and lead to less reuse of materials.

The Southeastern Public Service Authority, which oversees regional garbage collection, intends to contract with RePower South to begin collecting the area’s trash in early 2018, when SPSA’s deal with its current hauler, Wheelabrator, expires.

South Carolina-based RePower, which made a lower bid for the work, says its trash collection plan will lead to more, not less, recycling. It intends to pick out the bottles, cans and other recyclables from the trash it hauls away and sell it. The paper and plastic that can’t be sold will be pressed into pellets that RePower hopes to sell to coal plants for burning.

The rest of the trash will go to the regional landfill in Suffolk. People would continue to use their blue recycling bins under the recycling arrangements cities have independently of SPSA, primarily with Chesapeake-based TFC Recycling.

Michael Benedetto, president and owner of TFC Recycling, said RePower’s plan will encourage residents to throw their recyclables into their trash bin rather than their blue bin, and that recyclables collected that way — tainted by items like diapers, pesticides and sour milk — will be dirtier and less suited for reuse.

Instead, they’ll be more likely to end up as pellets for fuel or in the landfill, Benedetto said. That’s bad for the environment, he said. The Recycling Industries Coalition said the same in a March 15 letter to local mayors, county administrators and SPSA Executive Director Rowland “Bucky” Taylor.

“We are concerned because, no matter what you have been told, the recovered materials from one-bin systems have proven to be unusable in the production of new products,” Fran McPoland wrote in the letter on behalf of the Recycling Industries Coalition.

“The message the Authority will be sending by adopting mixed-material processing is for citizens to ‘give up’ on recycling,” she wrote.

Taylor said he read the letter but that SPSA has nothing to do with recycling.

“It (the letter) has been considered and we’re continuing to move forward” with RePower, he said, adding that many people have opinions on waste disposal methods and the concerns raised by recyclers are just that: opinions.

Taylor said RePower’s plan is an acceptable alternative, and one that could fill the regional landfill less quickly than the current process, which involves burning some of the trash to power Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Benedetto said it is harmful to the environment to continuously destroy items such as bottles and cans for energy when more are always needed.

“Recycling (an item like a can) is better than burning it and it being gone forever,” he said.

Benedetto, whose company employs about 350 people and has recycling contracts with most SPSA member localities, including Virginia Beach, that are worth millions, voiced concern with how RePower would respond to financial pressures if its business model falters.

The recyclables market has fallen sharply recently and companies that have tried to take “dirty” reusables to market have struggled, he said. He pointed to Infinitus Renewable Energy Park in Montgomery, Ala., a facility that opened in May 2014 to separate recyclables from trash and sell them. It closed last year for financial reasons, like others had before it, though others are still operating.

Benedetto presented a scenario in which RePower needs to increase the amount of materials it collects to make ends meet. Would it encourage residents, if only subtly, to throw recyclables into their trash bin? Would it go as far as pressuring SPSA member localities to do away with their recycling bin programs “under the logic that it all gets recycled anyway” and is easier for the resident?

Drew Lankford, a spokesman for Virginia Beach Public Works, which oversees the city’s waste management division, said no one in the city has uttered “even a syllable” about ending TFC’s recyclables collection contract or switching to a one-bin system.

And Jim Bohlig, CEO of RePower, said his company won’t want them to. He said RePower encourages people to separate and recycle paper and plastic.

“But not everyone recycles,” he said.

About one out of two residents do so consistently, and far fewer businesses even have blue bins, Bohlig said. That’s a lot of bottles, cans, plastics and metals that could be reused across Hampton Roads but aren’t.

RePower intends to capture those materials, possibly tripling the amount of waste that is recycled in Hampton Roads, Bohlig said.

“We’re not pulling anything out of the blue bins” to do that, he said.

The items the company finds will be dirtier, Bohlig said, but they can be washed before being sold. And the papers and plastics that can’t be — what the Alabama plant couldn’t sell — his company will turn into pellets that can be sold, he said.

“The last thing in the world I would want to do is invent a technology that lessens recycling,” Bohlig said of the pellet idea, which many believe to be unique.

Bohlig said critics from the other side of the recycling debate, who also have vested interests in the outcome, are worried about economics, not the environment. He noted that reclaimed paper was once worth $125 a ton and is now valued at around $45.

“It’s all about money in their pockets,” Bohlig said.

Asked about the business side of issue, Benedetto acknowledged by email that he is biased when it comes to Hampton Roads’ trash.

“But for environmental reasons, not profit,” he wrote.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact City Hall reporter Judah Taylor at Judah@wydaily.com or 757-490-2750.

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