Isle of Wight to end recycling?

Published 4:29 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Will Isle of Wight County become the third Western Tidewater locality to follow Smithfield’s lead and cease offering recycling services?

Board of Supervisors Chairman Dick Grice has requested a discussion of the costs versus benefits of continuing the recycling program be placed on an upcoming meeting agenda before the start of the next budgeting cycle, which traditionally begins in January when departments submit their funding requests for the coming fiscal year.

According to County Administrator Randy Keaton, “a lot of the recyclables” are now getting incinerated at the Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth.

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“Recycling is becoming extremely difficult … the markets have dried up,” Keaton told Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors on Oct. 21.

In 2017 and prior, according to The New York Times, American municipalities were shipping much of their used paper, plastic and other recyclables to China. But in 2018, China banned the import of various types of recyclables and tightened its standards for the materials it would accept, leaving a number of localities unable to find a substitute for the Chinese market.

“If we’re not really recycling … I think we need to reassess that from a financial standpoint,” Grice said.

Smithfield ended its recycling contract with Bay Disposal & Recycling in January in accordance with budget cuts its Town Council had adopted in June 2020. The city of Franklin, which borders Isle of Wight’s southern tip, followed suit in May.

Both localities had also claimed most of their recyclables were not actually being recycled but rather incinerated. Bay, however, disputed the allegations.

According to Bay spokesman Brandon Newsome, the company sends roughly 30% of the recyclables it collects throughout Hampton Roads to Wheelabrator. The remaining 70% goes to a processing facility.

“We take whatever we can to a processor and if they cannot accept it, the material will go to Wheelabrator,” Newsome said earlier this year.

“Some of the recyclables still have some value but the problem is when they’re commingled together, the labor to separate the materials is so costly,” Keaton said.

A month after the last curbside recycling pickup in Smithfield, Isle of Wight’s Public Works Department reported a 41% increase in the tonnage of recyclables being dropped off at its eight public refuse and recycling centers. But without a site-by-site breakdown there was no way to tell if Smithfield residents taking carloads of recyclables to Wrenn’s Mill and Jones Creek — the two closest recycling centers to Smithfield — were the ones driving the uptick.

A few months later, the town retained Summit Design and Engineering as a consultant for redoing its Comprehensive Plan. As part of that process, Summit surveyed 454 of the town’s 8,000-plus residents, 91 of whom expressed dissatisfaction with Smithfield’s lack of recycling services, according to the town’s community development and planning director, Tammy Clary.

According to Town Manager Michael Stallings, there have been “no discussions on restoring curbside recycling services” at this time.

According to town officials, cutting recycling from Smithfield’s contract with Bay was projected to save roughly $100,000 a year. However, the cost the county would save in landfilling its recyclables rather than continuing its own recycling contract with Bay is “not a large difference,” Keaton said. In some large cities, there is indeed a big gap between the cost of recycling versus disposal, but here in Isle of Wight it’s “just a few dollars.”

As of March, the county was paying $65 per ton to have Bay collect its recyclables. As of July, the Southeastern Public Service Authority was charging $61 per ton — up from $57 last fiscal year — to transport waste from the Isle of Wight transfer station on Foursquare Road to the SPSA’s regional landfill in Suffolk.

While Smithfield still pays Bay for door-to-door trash pickup and to take the garbage to the transfer station, the county pays SPSA the cost per ton to transport Smithfield’s garbage from the transfer station to the landfill. So any increase in tonnage from Smithfield residents throwing recyclables in with their trash would fall to the county, not the town.

Even if most of the county’s recyclables end up at Wheelabrator, “at least they are being converted into steam and electricity,” Keaton said. “Our garbage, though, goes to the landfill.”

Landfilling all of the county’s recyclables, plus Smithfield’s, could also have “a huge implication on … how long the landfill will last,” he added.

Keaton, however, is concerned Wheelabrator may some day not be an option.

The waste-to-energy plant currently has a $10 million contract to supply power to Norfolk Naval Shipyard, but learned in 2020 that the Navy plans to end this agreement in the next two to three years in favor of building its own power plant fueled by natural gas. Construction of that plant has now begun, Keaton said. Wheelabrator officials, in 2020, predicted they would be unable to continue to operate the plant absent the Navy revenue.

One option, Keaton said, might be a Chesapeake-based company that is getting ready to start construction on a plant that would convert household trash into diesel fuel. Chesapeake’s City Council granted a conditional use permit for the Hampton Roads Integrated BioEnergy Complex to move forward with its plans to build the plant on June 18, 2019, according to the recorded minutes of that meeting. The plant will utilize technology already in use at a smaller scale.

“This would be the first plant at the larger scale,” Keaton said.