Valley Recyclers Play the Markets and Profit Big from Growth

By Beacon Staff

If you can judge a society by its garbage, then maybe you can judge its ability to improve by what it recycles. If that’s true, then the Flathead is on the right track – as the amount of materials processed by the valley’s recycling businesses increases exponentially.

In the four years since Bob Morrow began as manager for Valley Recycling in Kalispell, the amount of materials processed by his firm has doubled. Last year Valley Recycling topped 7.5 million pounds – enough to cover a football field over the height of the goalposts.

Pacific Steel and Recycling, also in Kalispell, processed 25 to 30 million pounds, according to Branch Manager Dale Augusta. “Pretty good for the little Flathead Valley, isn’t it?” Augusta says.

Dumping Money: Mike Brown hurls shredded paper from the back of a truck at Valley Recycling.

Between just those two firms, that’s roughly 35 million pounds of copper, tin, iron, aluminum, pelts, paper, plastic and cardboard that isn’t taking up space in a landfill. Instead, the material is chucked into piles, compressed, loaded onto a truck and shipped throughout the West. Some of it is trucked to Portland, Ore., where it is then shipped to Asian countries. Some of the plastic is recycled into polar fleece clothing. Much of the paper is pulped in Spokane, Wash., or Frenchtown.

A recycling business doesn’t make money the way a waste disposal business might – the cost of its services isn’t built into city and county tax bills. Instead, managers like Morrow and Augusta carefully monitor the markets for the materials they collect, deciding how much they will pay the public for a material versus how much it will cost to ship the material to a buyer.

“If I’m making money in this business, with the little bit of material we ship out, we’re doing well,” Morrow says. “We play the marketing game, just like everybody else does.”

Copper is at a premium right now – with its price fluctuating anywhere from 30 cents to 50 cents per pound in a week. Augusta will pay $1.70 a pound for copper, but he won’t disclose the amount he gets to sell it.

This formula of weight versus price explains why no Flathead companies recycle glass. It’s heavy, abundant, and easy to produce. Augusta and Morrow speak of glass in wistful tones: As much as they would like to, they just can’t figure out a formula to make it cost effective. Morrow stopped recycling batteries for the same reason, along with the hazardous acid. Off to the landfill it goes.

Bob Morrow, manager of Valley Recycling in Kalispell.

On a breezy afternoon last week, Morrow walked through the Valley Recycling facility amid mountains of discarded catalogs and flyers, containers for yogurt, baby formula, herbal laxatives and beer. Trucks back in, dump a load onto a tarp, and Morrow or one of his employees pull the tarp off to the side for sorting. The smell is slightly pungent, but nowhere near the odor of a landfill.

The baler runs 11 hours a day, squeezing paper and hollow containers into dense, large cubes. The aluminum bales resemble pieces of abstract art: massive, creaking, colorful cubes comprised of hundreds of thousands of cans. Morrow pointed to a tower of a dozen or so aluminum bales. “All from fair week,” he said. The Northwest Montana Fair is his busiest time of the year.

Morrow gestures to a pile and jokes, “Still haven’t found that big bag of money yet.” The worst thing he’s ever turned up? A dead animal. The strangest thing? That one’s easy for him. He walks to a corner and pulls out a bright blue bowling ball. He bounces it once, deafeningly, on the concrete floor. “These are not recyclable,” he says, dryly.

Neither Morrow nor Augusta consider themselves ardent environmentalists, but in their line of work they can’t help but notice how much people still throw away that can be recycled. New residents to the Flathead tend to be good recyclers, they say, accustomed to the practice from their previous homes. And they believe people are only going to get better about recycling – it’s good for the planet and it’s good for business.

“I’d like to see a lot more,” Morrow says, “not just to make the business better but for the landfill not growing so much.”

Steve Burglund, of Great Bear Builders Incorporated, tosses cardboard from the back of his truck at Valley Recycling. Burgland recycles all the cardboard from his construction sites.