City, local companies discuss challenges, options for recycling

Recycling has been a topic of discussion during many Neighborhood Council meetings this year and several said they wanted more information from the city on why the city doesn’t provide a program.

Based on that interest, City Manager Greg Doyon invited representatives from the city’s sanitation division, Pacific Steel and Recycling, Steel Etc. and Republic Services, a company that acquired Montana Waste Systems. Steel Etc. was not able to send a representative but the other organizations had a discussion about the realities, logistics, challenges and costs of recycling programs during the Oct. 29 Council of Councils meeting.

Jim Rearden, city public works director, reviewed the city’s history with recycling, which ended in 2012 with the closure of the Convenience Center on 15th Street North next to Pepsi. In 2014, the city sold the 2.152 acre property to Mitchell’s Crash Repair for $401,000. Those funds went into the city’s sanitation fund to upgrade sanitation trucks.

The center operated from 1992 to 2012 and during those years, the city’s sanitation fund lost more than $1 million operating the facility, according to city data. Commissioners decided to close the center in 2012 in an effort to minimize losses and according to city records, 37 percent of the users were county residents and not city residents.

Rearden said the city has explored options for recycling, but with existing resources, it has not penciled out.

The city does run a commercial cardboard route with about 50 commercial customers and takes those loads to Pacific Steel where they pay Pacific $40 per ton to take it off their hands, Rearden said. As a reflection of how poor the market is, Rearden said the city in years past was paid $137 per ton of cardboard.

Mike Cross, general manager of Republic Services in Great Falls said “there are some real challenges. Customers have to be willing to pay for it.”

At the Great Falls facility, Cross said they’re limited on processing equipment and have to take most of the recyclable material to Pacific.

There’s not currently a market for recycling plastics in Great Falls, Cross said, because of the stringent rules regarding contaminants.

Republic does offer residential curbside pickup in the city limits for cardboard, paper and some metal, he said.

About a third of the things in recycling bins can’t be recycled, Cross said, and encouraged people to research what can be recycled and self sort since companies spent time and money on their end sorting material.

He said early on companies like his were able to offset the costs of recycling when the commodity prices were hot, but when the market turned, “now we completely eat those costs.”

In Bozeman, the city offers recycling at $10 per month and the city pays $160 per ton to dispose of the material. Cross said he spoke to his counterpart with the city who said the operation is losing money. In Great Falls, the cost is about $2.33 per month and is also losing money.

“We believe in recycling, but people have to pay for it,” Cross said.

Currently, it’s cheaper to put things in the landfill, panelists said, to the tune of roughly half the cost of recycling, but consumers pay a fraction of the cost of trash services.

Eric Meredith and Aron Hartnell of Pacific Steel and Recycling said they offer recycling for some metals, cardboard, paper, car bodies, appliances, electronics and catalytic converters from vehicles.

They do not offer recycling for plastic or glass currently.

Hartnell said Great Falls’ location is a challenge for recycling since most material has to be sent away for processing and freight costs are “a huge challenge.”

Other challenges are geopolitical.

Six or seven years ago, China implemented the Green Fence program, which coincided with the Olympics, and started restricting trash and recyclable materials the country would accept, Meredith said.

That was followed by the National Sword program, which significantly limited the materials the U.S. could ship to China for recycling.

The programs have implemented standards that are “almost an impossible quality to reach,” Meredith said of the materials that China will accept. Even if a Chinese inspector visits a yard in the U.S. and approves the material for shipping, U.S. companies still run the risk it will be rejected at port in China, which is a major cost, Meredith said.

Those programs coupled with the trade war with China and tariffs are increasing costs for recycling programs, Meredith said.

Meredith and Hartnell said companies have made recycling work in some Montana cities, but it all comes down to cost and whether consumers are willing to absorb the cost. Most are operated by private companies, not local governments.

Helena Recycling offers a program for $8 per month, but charges the city for portions of their operation, panelists said.

Bozeman offers programs ranging from $10-$20; Billings has a program with a $35 setup fee and $20 per month; Missoula has several programs and one offers $12 per month for once a month pickup and $20 per month for twice monthly pickup.

Representatives from the councils briefly discussed developing a survey to determine what Great Falls consumers were willing to pay for recycling locally.

Cross said the company has conducted market research and found nationwide that consumers are willing to pay about 80 percent of what they pay for trash collection.