Nearly 30 years ago the state of Minnesota created a source of funding to promote recycling and reduce waste. Now, growing waste streams, stagnant state funding and low demand are making recycling programs all over more difficult than ever to maintain.
Funding since 1990 has come from Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment (SCORE) monies raised through use of a SCORE tax.
“Every time you throw away garbage, you pay a tax on it,” said Crow Wing County Solid Waste Coordinator Douglas Morris.
That SCORE tax is built into refuse hauler and solid waste disposal fees. The money goes to the state environmental fund. Some of the fund goes toward the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; some of it (about $20 million) comes back to counties to fund recycling programs.
The system seemed to work in the beginning, but a perfect storm has made recycling more costly and more difficult. SCORE funding doesn't go as far as it used to, and counties aren't getting more than they used to either.
“The money we've received the last 20 years has pretty much been flat,” Morris said. “Unfortunately, even though counties have increased recycling, costs have gone up. And unfortunately last year with China cutting off a lot of recycling going to them, that took away a lot of the market, so cardboard used to be $150 a ton, now it's down to $10. A lot of prices have gone away, so how do we pay for all of this?”
There are many options to make up for increased expenses; however, they all come with a cost. Morris said the county could increase assessments for solid waste on property taxes, but taxpayers don't want higher taxes.
A surcharge could be levied against retailers, such as the surcharge or “core charges” on large batteries. Because of the battery surcharge, businesses that sell them take care of disposal themselves. In other industries, this would require massive amounts of storage, and prices for retail goods would increase.
“You can't leave it all up to government to solve all the problems,” Morris said. “Some of the problems have to be put back on retailers.”
As a result of a problem with no immediate solution, Morris and others in county waste disposal have had to find some way to make SCORE funding go further. In Crow Wing County, that meant getting away from being the middle man between businesses and customers. That's why Crow Wing County recently decided to cease distributing SCORE funding to waste haulers to defer costs of curbside recycling.
“The rationale for that is curbside is a direct agreement between the hauler and consumer,” Morris said. “We don't need government involved in it.”
SCORE funding will still be used to fund recycling dropoff sites, however, because curbside recycling in rural locations presents extreme challenges. Waste handlers may not have two curbside recycling customers within a mile of one another, and when it comes to rural waste collection, distance is money. In a very rural community, volume is nothing next to the distance between customers on a route.
“Charging per bag was not a good way of doing it because that's not the biggest cost. The biggest cost is getting there to pick it up,” Morris said. “You almost need two solutions for high density areas versus low density areas. It might be different answers for both types of situations.”
Cass County is also experiencing the challenges of handling a growing waste stream, low demand for recyclables and stagnant state funding. The Cass County transfer station system, however, changes the issue. Traditionally, Cass County has only ever used SCORE funding to supplement its own solid waste program. Recycling in Cass County is mostly done through dropoff sites managed by the county, not refuse haulers and transfer stations.
“We don't grant it out to specific entities,” said Cass County Environmental Services Director John Ringle. “We provide the sites. We provide the services for recycling.”
Waste disposal difficulties have had an impact in Cass County as well. In this case, it has resulted in a change in county contracts.
“We have a contract management firm that manages our transfer station and recycling program,” Ringle said. “We just changed companies (Aug. 6). We hope things are going to get better. There are some things we've been collecting that are difficult to get rid of right now like ag plastics and boat wrap and textiles, glass. They are costly and difficult.”
While counties are facing their own challenges with waste disposal, almost all local cities have been discussing recycling programs and recycling contamination with trash. These, in addition to additional expenses of recycling, threaten programs across the state.