Hartford has through December to decide curbside recycling program’s fate

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-18-2024 5:30 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Hartford Selectboard will decide by the end of the year whether to negotiate a new contract for its publicly-funded curbside recycling program or to discontinue the service.

To allow the town time to explore its options, the Selectboard, by a unanimous vote on Tuesday, authorized extending the town’s contract with Casella Waste Systems through Dec. 31. The contract, first created in 2016 and fully funded by local property taxes, was previously scheduled to end on June 30.

Costs for curbside recycling vary month to month depending on the market values of recyclable materials. Casella charges the town a processing fee based on the volume of recyclables collected, though the town receives 80% of the revenues from sold materials. Declining market values for many recyclable materials in recent years has resulted in lower revenue yields to offset collection and processing costs.

Hartford’s curbside recycling program, which cost $252,000 in 2023, is expected to increase this year to $291,000, according to an email from Casella. The six-month extension includes a processing fee of $175 per ton of recyclables collected plus a 5% increase in other service costs.

“Hartford’s recycling volumes are very consistent (but) market values fluctuate — sometimes significantly,” David Allen, division manager for Casella, said in the email to the town. “There is no way to predicate future (recycling revenues) or your future net processing costs.”

The current program has a problem of “inequity” because many taxpayers do not or cannot use the service, such as commercial property owners, said Public Works Project Manager Chris Holzwarth.

Casella’s curbside service does not extend to homes on private roads, Holzwarth added. Many of those homeowners find it inconvenient or difficult to haul their recyclables to the nearest public street, he said.

“The way it’s set up it’s not a service that everyone is entitled to,” Holzwarth said. “There is some subsidization (involved) at the town level.”

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Less than half of Hartford households appear to be using the curbside service, based on the number of daily pickups reported by Casella, Public Works Director Bryan Gazda said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The new contract is necessary due to changes in the operations of Casella, which operates in seven states in the Northeast, including Vermont and New Hampshire.

The company is modernizing its fleet of recycling trucks to eliminate the need for the driver to exit the vehicle, Gazda told the Selectboard. These new vehicles will require customers to place their recyclables in a specially designed tote, with a capacity of roughly 85 gallons, that can be lifted and emptied by a robotic arm attached to the vehicle.

The revenue and cost model in the existing contract is also outdated, Gazda said in a memorandum to board members.

Casella has not disclosed the projected costs of a new contract yet, Gazda said. While there would be an additional cost for the new totes, the cost of the new contract will depend lar gely on whether the town decided to purchase the totes or to lease them from Casella.

Though unable to discuss the town ‘s contract, Jeff Weld, Casella’s communications director, said that Casella has had to increase some rates and fees to offset consumer inflation, like fuel prices, or declining market values for recyclables. Glass, for example, is more costly to transport due to its collective weight and bulkiness and there are fewer facilities that process the material into new bottles.

Casella also provides town-wide curbside recycling for other Upper Valley communities, including Plainfield and Enfield.

Plainfield is in early negotiations with Casella on a new contract, which will include recycling and household trash. Voters at Town Meeting in March authorized the Selectboard to enter a new contract for services, 177-19.

“We wanted to test the will of the town about whether they wanted to continue with the program. And the answer was a resounding yes,” said Town Administrator Stephen Halleran.

The town cost to provide trash and recycling services, of approximately $300,000 a year, saves residents significantly on waste disposal, Halleran said in a phone interview. The cost impact of the municipal program — about 60% funded by local property taxes and 30% by user fees — costs a homeowner roughly $300 a year, as opposed to around $600 or more to purchase those services individually.

“And residents would rather be playing golf or doing something else than going to a transfer station on a Saturday,” Halleran said.

Enfield renewed a five-year contract with Casella last year for curbside recycling and household trash, said Town Manager Ed Morris. The town also runs a transfer station, which provides an option to residents who live on private roads.

Processing costs have increased in the new contract largely because of a decline in market values of many recyclables since 2017, when China — once the largest importer of recyclable plastics — announced a ban on importing waste products, said Public Works Director Jim Taylor.

Under the old contract — signed before China’s ban — Enfield paid a fixed processing fee rate of $42.96 per ton. Under the new contract, the recent rate, which changes monthly, was $107.53 per ton, Taylor said.

But the municipal program still saves residents — about $23 a month compared to what they would pay for services individually, Taylor said.

Hartford is currently awaiting the completion of a study, funded in 2023, to research the long-term feasibility of continued town operations, as well as the benefits of leasing its transfer station to a private company.

The Selectboard plans to host a public listening session, likely in August, to hear feedback on whether to continue the curbside program.

Should the board decide to discontinue town-funded curbside recycling, residents may add curbside recycling to their private trash collection services.

Residents would still have the option to bring recyclables directly to the town transfer station, which is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

The transfer station, located at 2590 North Hartland Road, does not currently charge for recycling. But fees for recycling might become necessary should the town discontinue its curbside program and the transfer station has to cover the cost to process a higher volume of recyclables, Gazda said.

Should the Selectboard decide to continue the town-funded program, the town would solicit bids from all contractors, Gazda said. He said he did not know offhand of other companies besides Casella that provide town-wide services.

“I’ve only had one conversation with another hauler but they indicated that they didn’t have much interest in getting into (a town-wide service agreement),” Gazda said.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.