COLUMBIA — Columbia's recyclables are piling up — and up — and up.
The city's recycling program is experiencing the same difficulties programs throughout the country are facing, as the nation's economic crunch causes space to become a more valuable commodity than what is stored in it.
"We will get to the point where we need storage space and empty warehouse space within about a month," said Ramon Garza, administrative assistant for the City of Columbia Sanitary Landfill.
The nationwide decrease in the value of recyclable goods has caused private buyers of the city’s recyclables to either make bids below the city’s cost of processing or not bid at all. As a result, processed and baled recyclables have piled up at the city’s landfill.
Storage space will become a problem if fiber products such as cardboard, newspapers, mixed paper and office paper remain undesirable to bidders. Unlike the 44 glistening bales of PET plastic sitting in the muddy parking lot, the paper products must be stored indoors and remain safe from the elements if they are to be reclaimable.
Although moving the recyclables has been a challenge and space is limited, the city has not made made any adjustments to the recycling program, and plans to proceed with business as normal.
In one shed at Columbia's landfill, multicolored bales of cardboard and mixed paper are stacked five high. In the much larger storage shed located opposite it, nearly 200 black-and-white bales of newspaper sit next to about 100 bales of corrugated cardboard, waiting to be reincarnated.
“HDPE plastics and aluminum are the only materials we can sell at or above processing costs,” said Michael Symmonds, landfill and recovery superintendent for the city Public Works Department.
The city is taking the possibility of future space restrictions seriously and has begun looking at possible alternative storage space to rent, Garza said.
The hope is that the market soon will gain some traction and the processed recyclables being held will once again become attractive to buyers.
"It doesn't look promising at this point,” Symmonds said. “We will sell commodities when there is at least a ‘break even’ with processing costs."
The processing cost typically is between 5 and 8 cents a pound, Symmonds said, though that varies by commodity.
Holding onto the recyclables does not mean any loss of revenue for the city since the processed bales are still an asset to be sold at a later date, Symmonds said.
"It's just a delayed revenue," he said.
Columbia's recycling program has not been profitable since it began in 2002, Symmonds said. It came close last fiscal year, when it was roughly $10,000 away from breaking even.
Having to purchase excess space to store the recyclables will augment that difference.
"That's when you're gonna start losing a lot more of your available capital," Garza said.
The recycling program isn't likely to be curtailed or even cut completely if the trend continues, Symmonds said.
“I don’t think that the City Council or citizens would allow us to do that," Symmonds said. "We will continue to collect and process materials, same as before the price drop."