County to stop taking plastic, tin recycling

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Flathead County will no longer accept No. 1 and 2 plastic and tin cans (such as soup cans) at its recycling outlets starting Feb. 15, Public Works Director Dave Prunty said.

County residents can drop off plastic and cans through Feb. 14 at recycling bins located at the Columbia Falls, Creston and Somers green-box sites and the county landfill. The Solid Waste Direct will continue to accept cardboard, all kinds of paper and aluminum cans, Prunty said.

The curtailment of local recycling is a direct response to tighter restrictions by China, where the majority of America’s recyclables have been sent in recent years. China announced to the World Trade Organization last year that it will no longer accept 24 types of recyclable materials.

“This is a global issue,” Prunty said. “The market for particular recyclables ceases to exist or is economically not feasible.”

The decision to stop taking plastic and tin cans was finalized by the Solid Waste Board on Tuesday.

“I don’t think in my career of 25 years in the waste industry I’ve seen this total shutdown, though there have been downturns,” Prunty said.

Unacceptable levels of contamination of the recycled materials was a key reason for China’s curtailment of importing recyclables, Prunty pointed out.

Scott Schreves, site manager for Valley Recycling, the Kalispell company that contracts with Flathead County for recycling services, emphasized that same concern.

“Contamination has continued to get worse,” Shreves said.

While many recyclers take the time to properly sort recyclable materials, there’s a growing number of people who are mixing other kinds of plastics into the recycling bins — everything from plastic boots to toys to plastic bags, which, in turn, contaminate the loads. Plastics often are co-mingled with other recyclables.

Shreves said he recently found a dozen bags in a cardboard bin simply labeled “P,” for either plastic or paper.

“They assume we would separate it,” Shreves said. “We’ve found so much hazardous material [in recycling bins] we don’t open the bags.

“The bottom-line message is that we eliminate the contamination no matter what the recycling commodity. Quality is necessary. It opens the door for the marketability.”

Prunty said the county has battled contamination since the recycling program began.

“Plastic urine bags are just one example of the kind of improper material we have seen in our program,” he said.

Shreves said it’s anyone’s guess how long the recycling spigot for plastics and tin cans will be turned off.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “It’s truly an unknown at this time.

“I’ve never seen the industry be affected like this in over 30 years I’ve been in the business,” Shreves said. “It’s not with a light heart we stop doing this program. It’s a hard personal and business decision.”

Valley Recycling had been shipping two loads monthly, at 15 tons each, to its recycling vendor at a cost of $30 to $50 a load “to get rid of it,” Shreves said.

An Illinois recycling vendor requested a load from Valley Recycling recently to determine if it could process the plastic recyclables, but Shreves hasn’t gotten a response back from the out-of-state company.

“It cost $1,600 in shipping with no payout,” he added.

Even though he’s sitting on a four-month backlog of baled plastics, he said he’ll keep it until he finds a market.

“I won’t ship it to the landfill,” Shreves stressed.

Prunty lamented the lack of recycling infrastructure in the U.S., particularly for plastics.

Last year the county recycling program collected 813.2 tons of recycling, which included nearly 44 tons of plastic and 23.8 tons of tin (steel). But 32.2 tons of contaminated recyclables were pulled out of the recycling bins and sent to the landfill.

“Virtually all of this contamination is in the commingled plastics, steel can and aluminum can 30-yard containers,” Prunty said.

“The paper bin and cardboard bin are usually pretty darn good,” he said. “If we can’t sort properly we’ll struggle mightily to recycle.

“Our citizens want the service,” Prunty said. “Starting and stopping is the most detrimental thing you can do to a recycling program.”

The county has gone the distance to provide recycling for its residents. In 2014 the county scaled back the number of recycling sites, citing a cost of $400,000 since the recycling program began in 1998. In 2009, as the economic downturn bore down on Flathead County, the county recycling program lost more than $11,000 in just one month when commodity prices for cardboard and aluminum tanked. Prunty maintained then, as he does now, that recycling “is the right thing to do.”

The WasteNot Project, a collaborative project that includes the Flathead Valley Community College Service Learning Program, the Flathead County Solid Waste District and Citizens For A Better Flathead, will be on the front line of educating both children and adults about the environmental benefits of producing less waste. Project Coordinator Allison Batch will start the program’s annual classroom presentations at area schools in mid-February.

“Definitely we’ll really be focusing on reducing and reusing plastics, since the recycling option is on hold,” Batch said. “And we’ll focus on the importance of sorting.”

WasteNot will have a presence at several local events such as Free the Seeds, Earth Day and the Kalispell MiniMaker Faire to talk about how to deal with plastics.

“This is a wake-up call to spur that behavior of buying in bulk, bringing in your own containers and buying things with recycled content,” she said. “I’m hopeful this will spur domestic investment in recycling infrastructure. The market is always a little volatile, but if we take this opportunity to invest in infrastructure here we’ll create a more stable market for recyclables.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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