Recycling Program Feels Recession’s Squeeze

By Beacon Staff

The recession has made significant financial impacts across the valley, and the Flathead’s countywide recycling program is feeling the pains of a down market.

According to Flathead County Public Works Director David Prunty, the WasteNot Recycling Program has seen significant decreases in revenue because of the poor commodities market for recycled materials.

When valley residents toss common recyclables – aluminum, plastic, paper and tin – into the county’s blue bins, that material is sorted, baled and sold on the market by Kalispell-based Valley Recycling, which is under contract with the county.

“We get that revenue and that helps us pay for the contractors’ work,” Prunty said.

Like most other markets across the country, however, the recycled materials market has taken a considerable hit in the past year and a half, Prunty said.

According to the county solid waste department, a pound of recycled aluminum was worth 57 cents in May. That’s up from 41 cents in 2009, but significantly down from 2008, when aluminum was worth nearly 80 cents a pound. In 2007, a pound of aluminum paid 81 cents a pound.

Prices for cardboard, newspaper and magazines are down as well, fetching just over 4 cents a pound in May. In 2008, it was worth 6 cents a pound.

Plastic came in at 8 cents a pound this May, down from 13 cents last year, but up from 1 cent per pound in 2008.

The trouble with low revenue is that costs essentially stay the same, Prunty said. So, as is the case with aluminum prices, when the money coming in is cut in half, it can present fiscal challenges for stagnant costs.

“It’s dang costly to recycle in Montana,” Prunty said. “That’s just a fact that occurs here because we’re isolated from the industry.”

So far this year, the recycling program has earned $41,927.19 in gross income with $77,187.84 in total expenses. In 2009, the county experienced the biggest gap between revenue and expenses in the past three years, taking in $84,799.07 and spending $195,223.38.

The program fared better in 2008, earning $107,849.89 and spending $141,611.54. The numbers were even closer in 2007, with income at $80,612.49 and expenses at $82,193.16.

Prunty said the direct disparity between revenue and expenditures can look rough, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. He said the county also takes into account the money saved by not having to expand the landfill with recycled items.

“For every pound or ton of recyclables that doesn’t go in the landfill, we get to put garbage in that spot,” Prunty said.

The WasteNot program has been around for 16 years, and Prunty said it earned money in perhaps two. The program often aims for breaking even, he said.

Though Valley Recycling sorts and bales the materials, it has to ship them out of state to sell them, Prunty said.

Out-of-state shipping is a reality for many recycling programs in Montana, Prunty noted, because there is little supporting infrastructure here, especially now with the loss of the area aluminum plant and Smurfit-Stone. This makes maintaining a recycling program a financial challenge.

“It’s going to be difficult for us to have a program that always either breaks even or makes little money,” Prunty said.

Prunty did say the program’s board of directors is dedicated to keeping it going, which is a cooperative effort from Flathead County Solid Waste District, Flathead Valley Community College Service Learning Program and Citizens For a Better Flathead.

Mayre Flowers, executive director for Citizens for a Better Flathead and director of the WasteNot Recycling Program, said saving space in the landfill helps offset losses in revenue.

WasteNot also maintains four other programs for the responsible disposal of other items, such as residential hazardous waste, pharmaceuticals, electronics and business waste, Flowers said.

All of these programs keep those items out of the landfill, meaning the county avoids costly expansion, Flowers said. They also keep potentially hazardous materials from seeping into the water, which avoids future costs, she added.

The WasteNot program is also responsible for various educational programs, Flowers said.

“I think we’ve seen over the years that we’ve done this program that there are ebbs and flows in commodity prices,” Flowers said. “You have to make a long-term commitment.”

Prunty agreed, saying the program will hopefully pass on the importance of recycling to future generations.

“Our board of directors understands that, in essence, we will be subsidizing the recycling program,” Prunty said. “We feel it’s the right thing to do.”