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Aiken looking for answers to save struggling recycling program

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect the rate City of Aiken customers pay for their monthly water, yard, trash and recycling pickup increased from $17 to the current rate of $20.38 in 2019.

Aiken City Council is trying to salvage the city's recycling program.

The council is discussing whether funding for Dumpster Depot, an Aiken company that handles the city's recycling program. The company is struggling due to a downturn in the recycling materials market and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Residents in Aiken have not been recycling as much in recent years, causing a lower volume of recyclable materials to enter the facility and leading to a loss in profit, said Dumpster Depot owner Norman Dunagan.

At the council's June 22 work session, Dunagan asked the city to return to a weekly pickup schedule in an effort increase the business's intake of recycling materials or to fund the business until conditions improve.

Without help from the city, Dumpster Depot will remain in continuous debt and will eventually have to close down the program, he said, ending the city recycling program.

"We have this 14-month period where we know we have this very large note due to the bank … and we will have to close the facility if we can't pay it off," Dunagan said. "If we close (the facility), then this asset the city has goes away."

Since 2015, Dumpster Depot has taken in the city's recycling at no cost. The company processes and sells the materials for profit to put back into the business, Dunagan said.

The most significant part of the facility's debt lies in paying off the automated line at a cost of over $640,000. Dumpster Depot has been paying off the equipment at $8,900 a month as part of an overall 72-month loan. The line is set to be paid off in about 14 months, Dunagan said, freeing the business from that part of its debt.

Paying off the line – which the majority of Dumpster Depot's profits are being used for – will cut down on the revenue the business is losing and help retain profits while the recycling material market heals, Dunagan said.

Dunagan asked councilors to help fund his business at roughly $12,000 a month for the next 14 months until the equipment loan is paid off.

Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh is looking at financial information that will allow the city to help and said Dunagan's suggested solutions may mean a rate increase for city customers.

"We don't have the ability to absorb that amount of money (into the Enterprise Fund) … without a rate increase," Bedenbaugh said during the work session. "We cannot provide (weekly pickup) at the current rate of $20.38."

The city changed to a bi-monthly recycling pickup in 2017, which Dunagan pinpoints as the beginning of the decline in material taken into the facility.

The Enterprise Fund encases funds paid from city customers for their monthly water, yard, trash and recycling pickup fees.

The last rate increase on this fund was in 2019 when the rate was changed from $17 to the current rate of $20.38.

Dunagan said his business has reduced staff to try to retain a profit, but he has run out of solutions as the markets have yet to change.

He brought the issue with his business to councilors in early May, stating that their assistance, financial or otherwise, would allow his facility to remain a "valuable asset" for the city in the future.

Council Comments

Many of Aiken's City Council members have spoken in support of the city's recycling program and note its importance in the community.

Despite the current low-participation rate, the general opinion from council members is to save the program while trying to avoid a rate increase.

"We really need to look hard at this because it's costing us a lot of money," said Ed Woltz, City Council member for District 6. "We have to be stewards of the (taxpayers' money)."

The future state of the recyclable market is also a deciding factor for council members.

"(The program) is worth saving, which we are trying to do; however, I don't believe the citizens of Aiken would support raising the fee just for the sake of saying we have a (recycling) program," said Ed Girardeau, City Council member for District 4. "If there's not an end-user, we may have to put it on pause temporarily until the market for recyclables comes back."

Aiken was the first City in South Carolina to have its own recycling program, Bedenbaugh said.

Other South Carolina communities have suspended their programs, while areas like York and Anderson counties have altered the kinds of materials they take in due to COVID-19.

Bedenbaugh said he would present financial information on what the council's options are, including expected costs of returning to a weekly pickup schedule, at the City Council's next July 13 work session.

He could not specify what would become of Aiken's program if Dumpster Depot did close.

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