Where does your trash and recycling go?

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton throws a plastic jug into the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday.

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton throws a plastic jug into the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday.

A pile of building materials is loading onto a recycling container at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

A pile of building materials is loading onto a recycling container at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A sign in front of a building materials dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

A sign in front of a building materials dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

The steel cans dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday.

The steel cans dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER photographs / Monitor staff

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton walks up with cardboard boxes at the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton walks up with cardboard boxes at the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton separates plastic materials into the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

Sarah Kelley of Hopkinton separates plastic materials into the recycling pile at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A sign in front of a building materials dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

A sign in front of a building materials dumping area at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station in Hopkinton on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

ABOVE: Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station employee Ted Valley picks up trash along the service road in front of the recycling center.

ABOVE: Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station employee Ted Valley picks up trash along the service road in front of the recycling center. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

The recycling bins at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday, January 3, 2024.

The recycling bins at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A pile of building materials at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday.

A pile of building materials at the Hopkinton Webster Transfer Station on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 01-06-2024 11:03 AM

Modified: 01-08-2024 3:16 PM


A pizza box, a bag of chips and a soda can all have one thing in common – the “recycle” symbol printed on their packaging asking customers not to throw them away in the trash.

But the reality is that dropping off these items at your local transfer station or the bright blue recycling bins in your community doesn’t guarantee they will get a second life through recycling.

The fate of plastic, metal, glass and paper items is tied to specific guidelines and accepted materials dictated by recycling programs in different communities. What one community welcomes into its recycling stream might be considered unacceptable in another.

In the town of Hopkinton, for instance, plastic egg containers and berry boxes are not accepted as recyclables at the transfer station.

“It definitely can be the case that if you put something in your recycling that your local recycling program doesn’t accept, the items can become trash and end up in landfills,” said Reagan Bissonnette, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a cooperative recycling nonprofit helping communities increase their recycling. “The most important thing is always to check and see not what the national news is saying about recycling but really what your local community is telling you can be recycled.”

All Merrimack County towns except Concord have a membership with NRRA. This membership offers the towns the nonprofit’s support in marketing recyclables, education on cost-effective transfer station operations and assistance with grant applications.

While recycling is free for residents, it can cost communities. In Concord, for example, the city’s new solid waste contract with Casella Waste Systems that kicks in on July 1 will charge the city $100 per ton to recycle.

Unlike solid waste, tracking where the recyclables go is not easy.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

In the face of tragedy, Franklin softball seeks togetherness
Franklin High-community college partnership prompted by extreme teacher shortage garners attention from Senator Shaheen
Missing Dartmouth student’s body found in Connecticut River
Police plan ‘high visibility’ traffic enforcement on Route 4
Middle schooler charged with assault after school bus skirmish
Opinion: The devastating impact vouchers have had on Arizona, Florida local public schools

When residents drop off items at the transfer station, they are sorted and baled before being marketed to companies that recycle waste. It’s not the same companies every time; it depends on demand and market price.

A few years ago, the glass market bottomed out and it was often crushed up and reused as a layer of fill for road projects. That’s changed. NRRA now offers two glass recycling programs, one still crushes it up into coarse aggregate that can be used instead of gravel, and the other transports glass to a Canadian company where it is crushed, cleaned, sorted and then delivered back to companies in the United States where it is made into fiberglass insulation or new glass bottles and jars.

While there is a worldwide shortage of silica to make glass, recycling programs that turn bottles back into new ones are limited in the Northeast.

Economic instability also causes fluctuations in the recycling market.

For instance, when the economy is poor, online retail orders dwindle, resulting in a reduced demand for cardboard shipping boxes. This ripple effect causes a reduction in recycling activity as well.

“As the economy is doing better, recycling prices tend to improve, and so that’s part of the reason why we have that variability,” said Bissonette.

Sorting struggle

Bissonnette noted the pros and cons of single-stream recycling – when everything is tossed into the same bin – compared to sorted recycling, where residents must put their items into different areas at the transfer station.

While the convenience of single-stream appeals to residents, it comes with added expenses for transfer stations, which have to separate the materials for market resale.

At Hopkinton’s transfer station, residents actively partake in the separation process, placing different recyclables in designated areas, which leads to a cleaner, more attractive product to sell on the open market.

Conway’s transfer station bales all types of plastic together for efficiency, even though segregating plastics could yield better market prices. Andrew Smith, Conway’s public works director said it’s a tradeoff – they don’t do it since it requires additional time and labor.

However, Conway does sort its paper waste.

“Most of the vendors know that stuff that comes from the town is good quality because we have guys right there sorting it and they know our products pretty good,” said Andrew Smith, the town’s public works director. “But single stream does affect pricing. There’s been some good and bad to that. The bad is that it requires to be mechanically separated.”

Rising trash costs

Most communities don’t have recycling contracts like they have solid waste contracts.

Over half of Merrimack County’s towns, including Bow, Andover, Canterbury, Boscawen, Dunbarton, Franklin, Hooksett, Hill, Loudon, Northfield, Salisbury, Warner and Weare, dispose of their trash at the Wheelabrator facility in Penacook.

Henniker and Bradford have their waste hauled by a private company, Naughton & Son Recycling LLC, which delivers it to Wheelabrator. But when the incineration facility is full, the company diverts excess waste to the Turnkey Landfill in Rochester.

With a shared transfer station, Hopkinton and Webster also have their trash hauled to the Turnkey landfill.

Most of these towns are under the Concord Regional Solid Waste/Resource Recovery Cooperative, which was established in 1985 with 27 communities aiming to leverage collective bargaining power to negotiate lower tipping fees.

The cooperative chose Wheelabrator, a waste-to-energy facility owned by WIN Waste Innovations, when the tipping fee was in the range of $30 per ton. Since then fees have continued to increase and now stand at $90 a ton this year.

“It’s just a function of availability,” said Jim Presher, chairman of the cooperative. “The companies are going to be able to charge more and more for the disposal of waste because they have the facilities for disposal and there are not any other options. Communities will have to pay what they’re asking.”

Currently, Concord hauls its waste to the North Country Environmental Services landfill in Bethlehem, located over 80 miles away. However, with the start of the new contract, the city is set to shift its waste disposal by bringing trash to the Wheelabrator facility. Alongside this change, there will be an accompanying rise in tipping fees, climbing from $70 per ton to $100 per ton.

“The new contract is less favorable financially than the old one because they were negotiated at two different times at where the market was,” said Chip Chesley, the city’s director of general services.

Burying trash in landfills is also not much cheaper in New Hampshire.

The BCEP solid waste district serving the towns of Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom and Pittsfield has a solid waste disposal contract with Waste Management’s Turnkey landfill in Rochester.

According to their contract, the tipping fee for 2022 was $82 per ton. But the fee increases annually by 5%, which brought it to $86, and it will increase to $90 this coming May.

“You are kind of limited to where you’re going to go and have to make the most economical sense as far as the distance and what the tipping fee is whether you haul your own trash or contract that out,” said John Keane, administrator of the district.