Recycling on the brink

Cardboard is sorted into the bin by volunteer Lois Peterson at the Grangeville recycling site off Day Road, during an April 6 collection day.

Should local government run the local recycling program?

If the local government doesn’t, in the foreseeable future, perhaps nobody will.

The volunteer program that has served the county for a decade has become untenable for the recyclers and change may come quickly: At 11 a.m. June 1 in Cottonwood, nine-and-a-half-year volunteer recycler Jay Hinterlong will close up the site for the last time, having been unable to find a volunteer willing to step up to the job. Many long-timers are also bowing out that day, and some will stay on until July 1, Hinterlong told the Free Press May 20, having given the Idaho County Commission notice on May 14.

“[Idaho County Recycling] no longer wishes to manage the sites on a volunteer basis, and we are ready to work with the county commissioners and Simmons to transition the management of the recycling program over to Idaho County,” the recyclers wrote and presented to the commissioners May 14.

“It was always with the idea the county would take it over,” Hinterlong told the Free Press, “and it never cost the county a penny.”

But the county ought not continue the recycling system in the form it now exists, Idaho County Commission chairman Skip Brandt told the Free Press Monday, May 20.

“The concept of the county taking over the existing system, as developed, is not realistic,” he said, “because it would have such an expense on it. [ICR president] Janie Fluharty noted there was a savings to the county, and there was, but at the cost of a whole lot of volunteers. If the county looks at hiring 40 people to fill those slots and pay them $15 an hour, then there is a huge cost. My whole focus is to stay cost-neutral. We don’t want to raise the cost to the citizenry.”

Recycling on the brink

A bin full of tin and aluminum cans, collected at the Grangeville recycling site on April 6.

Brandt told the Free Press recycling could be continued cost-neutrally in partnership with solid waste service provider Simmons Sanitation – if land can be found for development of manned drop-off sites near Grangeville, Cottonwood and Kooskia.

“The board ought to work it in with the drop-off points that we’re trying to get going with Simmons, if we can find any land,” Brandt said. “Kooskia City Council is on board with a location down here, but it’s a different mindset in Kooskia. … Down here we say ‘Let’s make it work.’ And in up there it’s ‘No, no, not in my back yard, put it somewhere else.’”

Before a 2008 market price tumble stopped recycling at Walco’s Camas Prairie Recycling Center, recycling was profitable private business in Grangeville. In 2009, a volunteer effort began under the Idaho County Commission’s stipulation that those efforts be cost-neutral to the county.

During their first year, the Idaho County Recycling (ICR) volunteers reportedly diverted 180 tons of recyclables away from landfilling and out to market, and had established regular collection in Grangeville, Cottonwood, Kooskia and Riggins by 2012-13. The recyclers have continued to sell significant quantities of local discards to LCRI of Lewiston: 323 tons of recyclables in 2017 and 309 tons in 2018, for more than $17,000 and more than $12,000 those years, they told the county commission May 14.

The recyclables market soured again last year, dumping the volunteers’ net proceeds from a $2,700 gain for 2017 to a $657 loss for 2018. The market hasn’t improved; on May 14, the recyclers told the commission the program has “lost money the last few months.”

“It is common knowledge that recycling is in a slump – primarily due to the collapse of Asian markets and the misguided trend of single stream recycling,” the recyclers said in a written presentation. “However, ICR has weathered this decline based on its policy of accepting clean and separated commodities which generate monthly income.”

Such was the dollars-and-cents case the recyclers presented: Why should the recycling program continue if hauling and selling recyclables loses money during market downturns? Because the net from the sale of recyclables is not the only benefit – nor even the most valuable benefit from the service the recyclers have provided.

When computed as diverting 300-plus tons that otherwise would have been landfilled as excess tonnage, the recyclers estimate their program has saved the county about $25,000 each of the last two years. (Find analysis of the excess tonnage cost in the March 6 Free Press report “Simmons reports big growth in countywide solid waste collection.”) Computing the savings not as excess tonnage but as base tonnage at the base rate implied by the county’s overall spending on solid waste service, the recyclers told the commissioners their effort saved the county about $70,000 each of the past two years.

“In 2009, it was easy enough to understand the board of commissioners’ reluctance to invest in a hazy recycling idea so ICR agreed that the new program would be cost-neutral to the county,” the recyclers wrote. “In 2019, we realize that the continuation of that provision makes zero sense. We are a proven county entity that successfully deals with the business of a known and measurable quantity of ‘trash.’ … ICR has reduced the amount of money that the county pays for waste disposal in a landfill. That is better than cost-neutral.”

The group listed a total of about $45,000 in assets such as a compactor, containers and sheds, in addition to about $12,000 in the bank. Subtracting $3,800 owed on the compactor, ICR has built up about $54,000 during its 10 years of operation.

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