Shreveport, Louisiana, may soon be one of the largest cities in the United States to lose curbside recycling service in recent years. So far, no one can definitively say why.
Following months of discussion about a new contract between the city, Republic Services and Pratt Industries, the proposal was pulled from legislative consideration in late summer. The current recycling collection contract expires October. Pratt plans to close its local MRF soon after and multiple municipalities are likely to be affected as a result. While the city released a new request for proposals (RFP), it's unclear where material would go in a region with limited processing infrastructure.
Repeated attempts to contact Pratt or Shreveport for more context about how negotiations broke down were unsuccessful. From Republic's standpoint, negotiations had not reached an intractable point when news of the facility closure came out.
“I was shocked to see that it closed down," said Chris Bloxham, Republic's area general manager. "After speaking with them two weeks prior that did not seem to be an option and they seemed to want to work through it."
Multiple sources indicate the city's unique contractual arrangement with the parties involved may have created more complexity than the average negotiations. Pressure from the city to keep prices low for residents was also said to be a primary factor.
Shreveport's curbside recycling program began in 2008 and Republic has been the contracted hauler throughout, with service later moving to biweekly in an effort to reduce costs. Most recently, an estimated 66,000 households had access to service (with fewer actually participating) for a $2.50 monthly fee on their water bills. Bloxham estimated Republic was recently delivering an average of 400 residential tons per month to Pratt's local MRF, located next to one of the company's paper mills.
Pratt's contractual arrangement with the city expired in 2017, but material continued moving as usual – aside from a recent period of surprise diversions to landfill disposal, according to the Shreveport Times. But other aspects of the company's relationship with Shreveport had changed. First, the company lost access to more favorable city water and sewerage rates. Second, Pratt's MRF and mill started directing residual waste to a new landfill. Previously, material went to the city-owned Woolworth Road Landfill operated by Republic.
The new contract would have seen Pratt go back to city water and sewerage rates, switch back to using the city's landfill and also reduce the MRF tip fee it charged Republic from $50 to $25 per ton. While MRF fees have been trending in the other direction for new contracts around the country, Bloxham said that reduction did not appear to be a significant issue for Pratt at the time. The city also requested a 30-day termination right, at no expense, which Pratt countered with revised language.
As for why the agreement also factored in landfill disposal activity, a relatively uncommon approach, Bloxham deferred to the city but said the general logic was to offset recycling costs.
"It would be in the city’s interest and it also was a way to add volume to the landfill and keep recycling prices extremely low for the market," said Bloxham. "That was a goal, to keep it affordable. They did not want to burden our citizens with any more expense."
According to the city's website, monthly rates for waste pickup increased to $7 in 2019 so there had already been related cost increases. Waste collection is handled by municipal crews.
In early August, KEEL reported the talks appeared to have stalled. This month, KTBS reported Pratt notified its MRF employees the facility would be closing in October. Shreveport released a new collection RFP at the time, valued at around $1.9 million per year, with no mention of a new processing arrangement.
"We are hopeful that we will find a vendor based upon the RFP. Otherwise, recyclables will be sent to Woolworth Road Landfill until we acquire another contract," said Shreveport Chief Administrative Officer Henry Whitehorn in a statement to KTBS.
Republic is considering a bid, but Bloxham said the lack of a viable MRF option is a "huge challenge to make that possible." In his view, any near-term solution would likely require transferring to more distant facilities at a higher price because "all of those options would probably require double handling."
As it stands, Republic's current collection arrangement with the city ends on Oct. 9 and bids for the new RFP are due Oct. 13.
While Shreveport works out its own issues, the MRF closure is also causing disruptions throughout the broader region.
Residential recyclables collected curbside by Waste Management in Texarkana, Texas, plus drop-off sites in New Boston, had been going to Caraustar. That company, a subsidiary of Greif, then transferred it to Pratt in Shreveport.
According to Doug Sims, public sector solutions manager with Waste Management, Caraustar informed him in early September that would no longer be an option for Texarkana's average 120 tons per month. Material may be temporarily disposed as a result.
“Obviously both the city and Waste Management wish to continue with that recycling program as is," said Sims during a Sept. 14 council meeting. “Now our only solution is to take a look at other material recovery facilities."
That could include Waste Management MRFs in Little Rock, Arkansas or Arlington, Texas, but each present their own distance challenges. Greta Calvery, senior public affairs manager, recently confirmed the company is still assessing options and Caraustar "will continue to take corrugated and paper only" with an unspecified destination. Greif did not respond to a request for comment.
Back in Louisiana, it's possible the Pratt MRF closure could also affect other programs in the state. Lisa Mahoney, treasurer of the Louisiana Recycling Coalition, said multiple drop-off sites in the region will now have limited options outside of using the state's only other residential MRF in Baton Rouge.
“It’s just not going to be cost effective to send the material all the way down to the southern part of the state," she said. "A lot of them were using Pratt to send their material in order to get marketed."
Mahoney said municipalities in the area face financial pressures that have been worsened by the pandemic and "unfortunately, recycling programs tend to be cut first." She sees room in the near term for the coalition and other groups to support program funding, but believes the area needs more infrastructure investment long term. That sentiment is also shared by another group focused on strengthening regional recycling systems.
“We certainly hope that the decision makers in Shreveport can work out a situation to bring the public sector’s material back into the supply chain for manufacturing. It’s an important part of manufacturing in the region and it’s an important service to be provided to the citizens," said Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council.
In the meantime, Louisiana's third-largest city will join the ranks of other sizable municipalities in the United States – such as Jackson, Mississippi and Surprise, Arizona – to see the decline of curbside recycling service within the past year. They are among dozens of other smaller municipalities to experience the same results recently. As has become common in other areas where programs went away, smaller operators may step in to pick up some of the slack.
CFG Recycling, part of a local faith-based operation that runs fitness centers, already offers source-separated collection on a donation basis. Founder Billy Weatherall said materials have gone to a variety of local and regional buyers – including Pratt, which notified him of the closure right away – and he's exploring new options.
“I’m not going to let this stop us," said Weatherall, citing an obligation to his employees as well as approximately 100 recycling customers around Shreveport. “Hopefully we can pick up some more customers, that’s eventually our goal."