Recycling economics: cloudy

Joel Mills, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·3 min read

Feb. 23—Lewiston's Public Works director predicted that solid waste bills for many customers would actually increase if the city discontinued its recycling service.

Chris Davies offered his assessment in response to a question from City Councilor John Bradbury during Monday night's meeting about whether it would be more economical for the city to discontinue the service. Using himself as an example, Davies said it would be more expensive for him to upgrade to the larger trash cart he would need if Sunshine Disposal no longer provided a recycling cart and he had to throw away his recycling.

"If we're trying to measure the cost that we're paying additionally to process recycling versus just putting it all into the landfill, there's going to be winners and losers in that with the ratepayers," Davies said, estimating that solid waste bills would go up for the 50 percent to 60 percent of customers in Lewiston who recycle.

Bradbury suggested that the city could negotiate lower garbage rates with Sunshine Disposal if it eliminated the recycling pickup, however. Still, City Manager Alan Nygaard explained that trying to figure out the economics of recycling during a global pandemic is virtually impossible because the overseas market for American recyclables has been severely hampered by the disruption to the usual shipping options.

"What I have learned recently is that while there is a market for recyclables, right now the overseas market can't be met because they can't get the shipping containers to remove them," Nygaard said. "So there is an enormous glut of recycled materials in the United States right now. So I think we need to be a little bit cautious, in that today might not really be the right time to see whether there really is economic viability or not. Right now, it wouldn't be."

The overseas market for recyclables could very well return with the shipping traffic, he concluded. Before the pandemic, several Asian countries like Vietnam had begun to take up the slack in demand for U.S. recyclables after China largely banned their importation in 2017 over contamination problems.

The recycling discussion arose out of the council's vote to extend the recycling contract to July 31 as the city negotiates with Sunshine Disposal in an effort to align the termination dates for all its various contracts with the city. Bradbury was the only councilor to vote against the extension.

In other business:

The council unanimously approved the 2020 Transportation Plan, which will help guide the city's investments into transportation infrastructure for the next 20 years. The council received only a few comments on the plan, including from Lewiston resident Luana Frederick, who suggested making Bryden and Burrell avenues into one-way streets; Lewiston resident Susan Somers, who believes the city should not emphasize the development of bike lanes because its topography doesn't lend itself to that mode of transportation; and Lewiston resident Ken Krahn, who thought that the city should focus investments on connector streets and sidewalks.

The council received the city's annual audit report from Presnell Gage accountant Dawn Aliverti, who gave the city a clean, unqualified opinion on three areas of city operations: finances, internal controls and federal funding compliance.

Several councilors and Nygaard thanked Davies for his service as Public Works director. Davies will retire soon after serving in the role since 2004, and Monday was his final city council meeting. A new director has not been announced.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.