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Smithfield to end recycling

The town of Smithfield will cease offering recycling services in January 2021.

In June, Smithfield’s Town Council included the cost-cutting measure in its adopted 2020-2021 budget, acting on the advice of Town Treasurer Ellen Minga. She had recommended the town end its recycling contract with Bay Disposal and impose a $6-per-month trash collection fee on residents as a way of offsetting $300,000, mostly in meals tax revenue, she predicted the town would not receive during the first quarter of fiscal year ’21 due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

According to the town’s Fall 2020 municipal newsletter, a shift in world markets has caused the demand for recyclables to dry up, leaving incineration as the only cost-effective option. Most of the recyclables collected in Smithfield are actually not being recycled, but rather are shipped to the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy power plant in Portsmouth, Town Manager Michael Stallings said.

According to the New York Times, American municipalities, in years past, would have shipped much of their used paper, plastics and other scrap to China for processing, but in 2017, China announced it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage.” Since Jan. 1, 2018, it has banned the import of various types of plastic and paper, and tightened standards for materials it will accept. While some waste management companies have made arrangements to send their recyclables to domestic recycling plants or to ship them to other countries, “others have been unable to find a substitute for the Chinese market.”

Wheelabrator currently takes municipal waste and recyclables not only from Bay Disposal but also from the Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), which provides waste management services for eight Hampton Roads localities, including Isle of Wight County. But the future of Wheelabrator is likewise uncertain. The company has a $10 million contract to supply power to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, but learned earlier this year that the Navy plans to end this agreement in January 2023 — June 2024 at the latest — in favor of building its own power plant fueled by natural gas. While Wheelabrator’s contract with SPSA extends through 2027, company officials have said they cannot continue to operate the plant absent the Navy revenue.

Given that the town’s recyclables have been ending up at Wheelabrator rather than being repurposed, “it did not make sense to continue to pay to have recyclable goods collected if they were not being recycled,” the town newsletter states.

Termination of the town’s recycling program, not counting the revenue from the $6 monthly trash fee, is projected to save Smithfield roughly $100,000 per year.

Residents interested in continuing to recycle at their own expense or use their recycling can as an additional trash can are advised to contact Bay Disposal at 757-224-0638. Bay Disposal representatives were unable to be reached by press time to comment on how much it would likely cost a Smithfield resident to arrange for private recycling pickup.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wheelabrator powered Norfolk Naval Station.