Southampton Seeks Remedies For The Growing Cost Of Recycling

A self-hauler recycles commingled containers at the Sag Harbor transfer station. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

Although the Southampton Town Board in December adopted a measure allowing it to require residents who use its recycling centers to buy a permit, just what form that permit will take and how much it will cost remain to be hammered out.

The Town Board is considering the idea not so much to close what has grown to be a $600,000-plus shortfall in the waste management budget, but to get a better handle on who is using the town’s four recycling centers, including nonresidents, said Councilman John Bouvier, who serves as the board’s liaison to the waste management department.

“I don’t think it’s urgent, but it needs to be fixed,” he said of the growing shortfall, adding the board hoped to unveil a proposal by the end of March.

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the board is considering a fee along the lines of $35, with a reduction to $25 for senior citizens and those with low incomes.

He said that would compare favorably with East Hampton Town, which currently charges $115 for a transfer station permit or $55 for senior citizens.

The difference is that East Hampton residents are not otherwise charged to dispose of ordinary household waste. In Southampton, self-haulers are allowed to bring a variety of recyclables, from cardboard and mixed paper to commingled plastic, glass and metal, to the recycling centers for free. But they are required buy green bags for nonrecyclable garbage. Bags are sold in five-packs that cost $15.50 for the larger 30-gallon size or $8.50 for the 13-gallon size.

Town officials point to a general collapse in the market for recyclables that has been exacerbated by the trade war with China for the growing deficit, but just why it matters in a town with an annual budget of $108 million budget is open for discussion.

The town moved the waste management portion of its budget into an “enterprise fund” during the mid-1990s when Vincent Cannuscio was supervisor. The decision came when the town was updating its solid waste plan and there was a reasonable expectation that it could take in enough revenue through the sale of green bags and recyclables to basically break even, while still encouraging residents to recycle.

Mr. Schneiderman said the idea expecting waste management to pay its own way stuck. “We don’t have to be in the garbage business at all,” he said. “There are certainly a lot of private carters that will come to your house to pick up your garbage.”

But, he added, with the town eyeing a more sustainable future, it wants to encourage recycling while being mindful of the impact on the bottom line.

“To what degree should people who don’t use it subsidize it?” he asked. “How much of their tax bill should go to operating the recycling centers?”

Neither Mr. Schneiderman nor Mr. Bouvier say annual permit fees would come anywhere close to making up the shortfall, but both argue a permit system would serve a purpose.

Mr. Bouvier said the town would be able to gain valuable information about who is using the transfer stations and how through a simple survey as part of the permitting process. He said the town could reach out directly to users to inform them when there were changes coming to the town’s recycling program.

Plus, he added, requiring a resident-only permit would eliminate people from out of town who might be tempted to bring their garbage to the town’s transfer stations.

Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said he doesn’t want to do anything that will dissuade people from recycling. “I’ve always taken the position that recycling should be available,” he said. “If people are recycling, good for them and good for all of us.”

The alternative, he said, is that some people might dump garbage on back roads or in the woods.

To the supervisor, though, allowing everyone to recycle is a double-edged sword. “In the old days, when there was a good market for recyclables, great. The more you bring us, the more money we make,” he said. “But now the more you bring us, the more we lose.”

Christine Fetton, the town’s director of public works, said the town has been caught in the middle as the cost of getting rid of garbage continues to rise and the value of recyclables continues to fall.

Over the years, Southampton has contracted with both Brookhaven and Islip towns to get rid of solid waste and recyclables, she said. The costs are only increasing as those municipalities are forced to pass along increased costs ranging from higher transportation costs to higher tipping fees at out of state landfills.

At the same time, a once booming recyclables market has dried up, she said. As an example, Ms. Fetton said in 2011 the town made $222,849 by selling clean cardboard, most of which was shipped to China for recycling. By the end of 2020, the town had paid $16,481 to get rid of cardboard.

With more people living on the East End and online shopping on the rise, the volume of cardboard that must be processed will only rise, she said, increasing the cost to the town.

China, which once bought seemingly endless supplies of cardboard and mixed plastics from around the globe, had sharply reduced its intake in an effort to reduce the amount of contaminated shipments it was receiving, Ms. Fetton said. It clamped down even further after President Trump began imposing tariffs on Chinese goods shipped to the United States.

Ms. Fetton said she did not see the tide shifting anytime soon. “The only real solution,” she said, “is to reduce the amount of waste we produce.”