The Northeast is often cited as a highly ambitious region when it comes to organics diversion and other materials management policies. While much of this is decided in state capitols and city halls, a significant amount of daily assistance comes from regional associations.
Started in 1981 by four New Hampshire municipalities, the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA) has since grown to include more than 400 municipalities from five states. NRRA serves as a resource for best practices, technical assistance, market knowledge and contract negotiations, as well as an incubator for new programs such as the SWEEP waste standard.
Since he became executive director in 2009, Mike Durfor has expanded the range of offerings for members and helped raise the organization's regional profile. In recent years, NRRA has increased activity in the EPA-recognized NRRA School Recycling Club, assisted New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services (DES) with training and has been awarded the contract for Vermont's electronics recycling program — twice.
Waste Dive sat down with Durfor during NRRA's annual conference in Manchester, NH on May 23 to learn more about the association's work, get his take on waste trends in the Northeast and talk about what it takes to pay for recycling.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
WASTE DIVE: The theme of this year's NRRA conference is "Back to the Future for Recycling." What do you think has changed over the years and what lessons may people have forgotten?
MIKE DURFOR: Sixty years ago we didn't have any plastic, and plastic is particularly challenging because of the fact that it's lightweight. It's the commodity pricing, it's the product that's being used for packaging and it's the logistics of getting it to a facility so it can be processed.
I did a presentation with Dylan de Thomas [from The Recycling Partnership] a year ago and he said everybody wants to blame oil, right? It's the low cost of oil. So it makes recycled product more expensive and they don't want to use it. That's one. It's China. China's not going to take any of our material now. So that's another one. It's single-stream. We've got so many single-stream plants going that they're producing crappy product. You've got aluminum and you've got glass and you've got plastic all over the cardboard. It's not single-stream, it's us. We're the problem. We don't put the right stuff in the right bucket. Wait a minute. We're putting everything in one bucket and depending upon where you are, it's not the same. California has got one thing, D.C. has got another. Between the Northeast it's not the same in each bucket. So I think it's a combination of all of those.
"It's not single-stream, it's us. We're the problem. We don't put the right stuff in the right bucket."
Executive Director, NRRA
We want to not waste raw material. We haven't come to grips with the fact [that] we need to pay for that somehow. There is a cost ... We're seeing more and more pressure being put on the transfer stations. Single-stream plants are now saying, "We won't take any glass." ... And then we've got another one saying, "We won't take any Styrofoam ... We won't take any wet paper ... We're not going to take any of this." By the time you get done you've got one bin, but it doesn't have much in it. What you're really saying is if you're a single-stream plant you want to cherry-pick the good stuff.
We run numbers all the time for little tiny towns that are interested in single-stream and they want to know, "Should we switch?" It's a hard place to be because ... they've realized economically it makes more sense to do source separation.
It sounds like you think people need to take a more holistic view of this issue and really look at how their decisions align with broader economic factors?
DURFOR: It shouldn't be "single-stream is all bad." There are a lot of savings economically in the curbside pick-up for a lot of towns, and that's what they see. But long-term, are we recovering more material?
We only have so much [raw material]. So does it make sense ever to throw that stuff away? Or should we manufacture and produce product up front and package it up front? So that when you buy your flatscreen TV and you take it home, you don't now own a flat screen TV — which you wanted to buy — but a cardboard box, a chunk of Styrofoam and a plastic bag, which you're happy to give to your transfer station. Now it's their problem. So let's figure out how we do that better. The logistics obviously drive a big part of the cost and that's what most of the change-over was that happened in the last two years when commodities went down. The haulers couldn't subsidize the haul costs. There wasn't any revenue.
The Northeast and California are often held up as the leaders for recycling, particularly with organics. Yet states like New Hampshire and Maine still don't have statewide organics policies. Do you see promising activity happening anyway or do you think there's room for growth?
DURFOR: We've gotten really good cooperation from New Hampshire DES. We had our first stakeholder meeting on April 5, had over 100 people there. We've since had 25 volunteers for a working group.
Vermont has done it one way. They've actually implemented Act 148 that said top-down "you will do this." They don't tell you how to do it, they don't tell you where you can find any place to take it, they haven't funded it at all, but they're committed to the policy. That's one approach. New Hampshire is always the "Live Free or Die" state. We don't want anybody telling us what to do and we always wait until everybody else gets the bugs out and then we'll come onboard. If you look at producer responsibility ... New Hampshire has got nothing. I'm trying to get them to even look at electronic waste before there isn't any place to take it. Right now it's costing [towns for collection]. If I was across the river in Vermont I'd get paid for it.
In terms of organics, I'm convinced that New Hampshire is going to be led by the economics of it. We only have so many landfills. Just like Vermont has one, we have five. As the price for MSW continues to creep up, and we're pushing $70 on average, the price of organics is going to come into play. The legislation will have to change and regulations will have to change in New Hampshire ... DES has recognized that those regulations have not been looked at, they've committed to doing it this year and I think that by this time next year we're going to be moving ahead with at least a couple of pilot programs.
Do you see any potential for a state policy in Maine or new initiatives in other Northeast states?
DURFOR: I think Maine is going to do it voluntarily. Massachusetts has certainly spent a long time investing in it. They're finding anaerobic digestion isn't maybe everything it's cracked up to be, but at least they're moving in the right direction. And I think New Hampshire is going to have to do it. In the marketplace itself, the grocery stores — just like plastic bags — they don't want to have one rule for Massachusetts and one for New Hampshire and one for Vermont. They cover the same territory.
It sounds like different states are taking different approaches, but there is more movement in the Northeast compared to other regions?
DURFOR: Absolutely. You can't go to any of the conferences around here without organics being at the top of the list.
Where do you see NRRA fitting into the broader industry conversation and do you see that role changing if potential EPA budget cuts to recycling programs go through?
DURFOR: We've got a diversified revenue stream. We don't depend on grants from the federal government. It's nice when we get them, but our budgeting is such that we depend on revenue from our other sources that we have and that makes us a little bit unique.
"You can't go to any of the conferences around here without organics being at the top of the list."
Executive Director, NRRA
We have been doing a lot of training for our DES while they're short-staffed. I think other states look to us as a resource just as they do to the [Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association] or [Northeast Recycling Council] in a different geographic area. Everybody has a different niche, if you will. All of the organizations, whether it's in Maine or Connecticut or Vermont, need to work together because of limited resources.
Do you see NRRA having to provide more technical support to states and municipalities as these resources become more limited?
DURFOR: Every day. A lot more technical support in contract negotiations. Because one town will get a contract from their vendor and they have no idea that the town next door just got a better deal by half, but we will because we keep track of it. So we're helping municipalities because they don't have time. I think we keep as good a finger on the pulse of the markets as anyone in terms of fiber and scrap metal. So that will always be there. We are getting more and more requests for designing new facilities, like Gilford [NH]. We can't be all things to all people, but I think we've done a real good job.