WINCHESTER — The city’s free recycling program appears to be destined for the trash heap.
Winchester Public Services Director Perry Eisenach told City Council on Tuesday that major changes in the international recyclables marketplace prompted Southern Scrap Inc., the firm that processes the city’s recycled materials, to announce it will stop accepting all plastics and cans as of July 15.
This follows the company’s decision in January to stop accepting glass and most plastics from the city.
While Southern Scrap, at 370 Stine Lane in Frederick County, is still recycling paper and cardboard, Eisenach said he expects those services to cease by the end of the year as well.
He said the “changes that are really being forced upon us” leave the city with two short-term options: End the recycling program, or pay tens of thousands of dollars to haul materials to another recycling center in Northern Virginia.
“In this situation, you’re trying to find the best worst option,” Councilor John Willingham said.
The recycling crisis began in 2017 when China said it would stop accepting most recyclables from the United States. That left 40% of America’s plastic, glass, paper and other items that had traditionally been recycled with no place to go.
As U.S. recycling firms were inundated with extra materials, the value of recyclables plummeted. That meant localities stopped receiving payments for raw recycling materials, eliminating a revenue source that was critical to offsetting the costs of municipal recycling programs.
Up until January, Eisenach said, Winchester received enough money from Southern Scrap to operate the city’s recycling program for less than $25,000 a year. Since the cost was so minimal, residents were never charged a recycling fee.
Now that Southern Scrap has stopped paying for materials, the city’s free recycling program is becoming an economical albatross.
“This has all happened really fast,” Eisenach said.
On July 15, Winchester will lose its ability to recycle almost everything. That means City Council has to decide what to do with residents’ plastic, metal and glass, and figure out how to address the inevitable loss of paper recycling services.
Eisenach said the first option is to haul recyclables to a processing facility in Manassas. Doing so would cost an estimated $220,000 a year, plus transportation expenses that could exceed $25,000.
Since there is only $50,000 in the fiscal year 2020 budget for recycling, City Council would need to appropriate an additional $200,000 to cover the costs of Option 1. The city may then start assessing a $2 monthly recycling fee for all single-family homes, with possibly higher fees for multi-family dwellings and businesses.
As for Option 2, Eisenach said, “We would basically just haul the materials to the Frederick County [Regional] Landfill. They would go in with all the other trash.”
The second option would not cost any extra money, but it would create more trash and bring at least a temporary end to Winchester’s recycling program.
“I’d like to find a way to continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Councilor Kim Herbstritt said.
“I’m all in for Option 2,” Vice Mayor John Hill said.
City Council has just one month to decide. Since neither option is good, Eisenach suggested conducting an online survey to learn what the public wants.
The survey was posted Wednesday afternoon at winchesterva.gov/recyclingsurvey. It asks Winchester residents to choose Option 1 or Option 2, or select Neutral. As of 5 p.m., 115 people had responded and 58 percent were in favor of Option 1 with the additional recycling fee. Thirty-nine percent favored taking everything to the landfill, while the remaining 3% were neutral.
Eisenach said both options are short-term solutions. Once council makes a decision, it needs to figure out if there is a cost-effective future for recycling in Winchester.
“For the long term, we really need to look at a regional recycling facility” to serve the city and surrounding counties, Eisenach said.
Several councilors asked Eisenach to see if there are other nearby processors willing to pay for Winchester’s recyclables. Council Vice President Evan Clark suggested Winchester Scrap Metal at 1302 Martinsburg Pike in Frederick County.
“It’s 20 cents a pound today for aluminum [at Winchester Scrap Metal],” Clark said.
Council will weigh its short- and long-term recycling options at its next meeting on June 25. Input from the online survey will factor into the panel’s decisions.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council work session in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice Mayor John Hill, Vice President Evan Clark and councilors Kim Herbstritt, John Willingham, Les Veach, Bill Wiley, Judy McKiernan and Corey Sullivan.