Politics & Government

Recycling costs. Why York County will help Tega Cay, others on a ‘money-loser’ anyway

Recycling isn’t dead after all. It’s a matter of watching the numbers to see how, and how long, it will work.

York County and Tega Cay have an agreement for the county to accept the city’s recyclables starting March 11.

Tega Cay residents will be able to recycle mixed paper, steel cans, aluminum cans and foil, plastic bottles, jars, jugs, cardboard and chipboard in their Signature Waste carts. They can take sorted glass to the county-run Baxter convenience center.

“After many weeks of hard work, Tega Cay is happy to offer recycling to its residents again,” said Mayor David O’Neal.

Last summer, Tega Cay had to stop collecting glass. This year, the city cut plastics. The moves were part of shifting economics in recycling and what made sense for provider Signature Waste to collect.

Tega Cay leaders announced fewer items were being collected curbside and contamination within those bins could lead to less future recycling. The new agreement with York County changes the equation.

“I’m am so grateful to have a recycling program again in Tega Cay that is convenient and useful to our residents,” said Councilwoman Heather Overman.

Tega Cay isn’t alone. Last summer, The Herald reported some recyclables collected in Rock Hill and elsewhere were ending up in landfills because of market forces.

A recycling center was part of an $89 million county bond referendum in 2015 to update court, county complex, law enforcement and other sites. Recycling and public works expansion means room for municipalities that may be in a recycling pinch.

“Our goal has always been to hopefully establish relationships with the municipalities and collectors, and be able to process their materials,” said David Harmon, assistant county manager. “It not only helps us to maybe produce revenue, but it keeps it out of landfills. It increases our recycling percentage across the state.”

The revenue piece is the trickiest in the puzzle.

“This is a new center,” Harmon said. “It’s a state of the art facility. We’ve never operated anything like this previously.”

Cost specifics aren’t yet part of the arrangement. There is a clause noting the county will examine costs and review tipping fees in renegotiating the deal. Harmon’s group will track recycling costs for four to six months to determine what Tega Cay should pay.

“We’ll be able to bring that back to the table and utilize that in renewing this contract with Tega Cay, and also renewing it with other cities that may want to come on board,” Harmon said.

He expects there will be some.

“The town of Fort Mill has also indicated interest in this,” Harmon said. “We’ve also got a lot of private contractors out there who would like to recycle that would bring the materials to us.”

No firm costs concerned several York County Council members ahead of a 4-3 vote to enter the agreement. Councilwoman Christi Cox said residents in unincorporated York County pay $3 million in operation costs for the recycling site. She doesn’t want to dip deep in the county general fund.

“The recycling industry is hitting a place where not only are we not making money on this, but we’re losing money,” Cox said.

York County Councilman Joel Hamilton said he’d rather wait on firm figures before entering an agreement.

“The costs are just conspicuously absent,” he said. “If we’re running this county anywhere near how we would run a business, this certainly isn’t something we would consider.”

York County Council Chairman Michael Johnson said the county needs to break even. He doesn’t want to spend unincorporated tax dollars to fix a municipal problem.

“We need to make sure that any municipality that joins us in this is paying their fair share,” Johnson said.

He also said part of his role is to bring greater cooperation among the cities, towns and unincorporated areas.

“We need better cooperation,” Johnson said. “I believe this is a good first step.”

One issue Tega Cay and other potential partners won’t have to worry with is space.

“We do have a large, beautiful new facility over there and it sounds kind of strange to say beautiful when we’re talking about recycling trash,” said York County Councilman Robert Winkler. “But the taxpayers voted on that with a bond referendum.”

But the issue, again, is economics.

“No one’s making money recycling anymore, y’all,” Johnson said. “That ship sailed. This is a money-loser. We’re losing money on it. Tega Cay’s losing money on it. Rock Hill, probably losing money on it. I don’t know exactly. I know Fort Mill is losing money.”

Harmon said the past several years brought major changes in recycling, which factor into how much help the county can offer. The county can, for instance, still recycle glass. The county doesn’t get paid for its glass but has a vendor to accept it.

“We have limited what we will accept from Tega Cay and what we will not accept,” he said. “The things that we don’t have a market for, obviously, we will not accept.”

Eliminating redundancy also could save taxpayers, Johnson said.

“Whether you’re talking about recreation, libraries, no matter what it is you do, if you can do it where now you don’t have three recycling directors, you have one recycling director,” Johnson said, “it saves money for taxpayers countywide.”

Overman shares Johnson’s idea of elected leaders across jurisdictions working together.

“It’s only when we work together that we can solve the problems that impact the people we represent,” she said.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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