December 4, 2020 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Uncertain Future of Recycling in Santa Monica

Contract with recycling provider to expire July 1

By Cailley Chella 

Santa Monica has received awards for its high levels of environmental sustainability. It’s one of the greenest cities in California, if not in the entire U.S.

The City’s goal is to have been to have a 95 percent landfill diversion rate by 2023, and they’ve been inching towards that since the rate was 71 percent ten years ago. The landfill diversion rate currently sits at 81 percent.

But when it comes to recycling in 2019, the answers aren’t so straight forward.

The City has run a pretty aggressive recycling campaign, urging residents to “go green,” but despite this, the market for recycled materials isn’t as lucrative as it has been in years past.

California used to sell more than 60 percent of their recyclable materials to China but due to recent laws enacted to address to environmental concerns, China has lowered their intake of recycled materials drastically. Now, the value of things like mixed paper have been cut to just 10 percent of what they were raking in just one year ago, down from $100 per ton to $10 per ton.

That means recycling costs are going up, because companies can’t make as much of their money back by selling the materials,

It also means that plastics like bags, yogurt tubs and soap dispenser bottles are now considered residue, not recycling.

And recycling companies are throwing the new costs onto cities, and therefore, residents.

So, whereas recycling used to be a steady revenue stream averaging an income of $350,000 a year, last year revenues dropped to $300,000 a year, and it’s being projected that the city will spend $200,000 for the current fiscal year.

At the regular meeting last Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council took at look a new contract with Allen Company, a California based company for recyclable materials processing services for the Public Works Department and the company that currently runs recycling services in the city. Their current contract expires on June 30.

If the proposed seven year contract were to be approved, anticipated costs would total $950,000 or more annually.

“If council [approved] this contract, Santa Monica’s recycling costs could increase from $25 a ton to approximately $67 a ton,” said Manager of Santa Monica’s Resource Recovery and Recycling Division,Chris Celsi.

That contract was based off the current market rates for recycling, only allowing for reduced rates if the market “goes back up,” so they can sell the recycled material at a higher cost.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich seemed to find the provision of a potential lower cost unideal, saying, “Until some rocket scientist or some mad scientist comes up with some plan for recycling that nobody has thought of so far, it’s just gonna keep getting worse…so there’s no upside.”

But the rest of the council disagreed. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

“What about the future of compostables?” Councilmember Ted Winterer asked.

The contract also included a provision that Allen Company be moved to a new location, with its current processing center now in a building big enough to also have a buyback center attached, but the council was unsure about this stipulation as well.

“Why do we need a buyback center,” Councilmember Winterer inquired.

“I can’t see us not having a buyback center here in Santa Monica, especially when we pride ourselves so much on being a city that recycles a lot,” Councilmember Ana Maria Jara countered.

But some sort of a solution was crucial, as the power at the current recycling center is going out on July 1 no matter what.

“We are up against a deadline so if we go back to the drawing board there are some significant implications,” City Manager Rick Cole said.

The council did agree that having a permanent on-site recycling center was ideal for the city’s zero emissions goals.

At the end of the discussion, the council decided to buck the staff’s recommendations of approving the contract with Allen Company.

Even though the cost to transfer materials to an off-site facility was estimated at $500,000 a year, the council chose this option for a temporary solution anyway.  

Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day motioned to look for new bids from recycling companies and allow interim processing in the short term, whether on site in Santa Monica or transferred out of the city. The motion included that, long term, they prefer to maintain a processing center within the city. 

It said that the buyback center be put on hold, which means Santa Monica will not have a buyback center while a new contract is being discussed. Finally, they specified that staff be allowed to go out and get bids on an emergency basis to find that processing location. 

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