China stopped accepting American plastics earlier this year and, on Feb. 15, so did Flathead County, which had been collecting loads of plastic and tin at containers throughout the county for years.
Eight months later, what some hoped would be a temporary action by the Chinese has lingered and in the Flathead Valley it has become more and more difficult, with fewer and fewer options available, for frustrated residents to send their waste somewhere other than the landfill.
It’s a struggle that isn’t lost on the man who oversees that landfill, Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty.
“We haven’t heard anything on how long ‘temporary’ would be is the best way to phrase it,” Prunty said. “There’s no financial incentive at this point to open it back up; there’s nothing that we see at this point in time that would make logical or financial sense.”
For years, China was the single biggest player in the recycling market, gobbling up as much plastic and steel (usually tin cans) as it could from around the world. But over time, China’s recycling facilities were inundated with problematic materials, namely plastic bottles or containers that had not been properly cleaned and incompatible plastics, ones marked something other than 1 or 2, which are the only plastics that Flathead County was supposed to collect.
Instead, Prunty said, residents deposited material that could not be recycled, and evidently so did other cities, counties and states around the country. That, ultimately, is what led to China making its decision to pull the plug on American recyclables.
“We don’t do a very good job, even in our little program,” Prunty said. “We’ve done all we can and people don’t care. They just kept throwing everything that’s plastic in there.”
The county contracts with Valley Recycling, and they ultimately made the decision to stop collecting the recyclable plastics and tin since they could no longer dispose of them in a fiscally responsible way.
“If we were in San Francisco, on the coast, and you have a port over there and there’s not a cost, then recycling is a heck of a lot more cost-effective,” Prunty said. “But we don’t have the industry here … so we’ve got to ship it out on a truck and send it to Seattle.”
Prunty said that even though plastics amount to a tiny portion of the total refuse the county collects, around .05 percent, there is value in practicing good recycling and not just because it would reinforce the concept of living sustainably to younger generations.
“Recycling is more costly for us, usually double to triple the cost of putting the raw material in the landfill, and one side says ‘let’s just landfill it all,’” he said. “Well, over time, you put all those materials in there, over 90 to 95 years (the expected life of the landfill), and landfill space is very costly and very important. We want to make it last as long as possible.”
There is one community, Whitefish, still accepting plastic recycling with its vendor, North Valley Refuse, at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Railway Street. Those materials are sent to a single-stream facility, one that processes different types of waste together and separates out recyclable materials. Whitefish residents can also have their recyclables picked up curbside, for a fee, by contacting City Hall.
Whitefish, not coincidentally, has been increasingly more focused on its environmental footprint in recent years, adopting a Climate Action Plan in December 2016 that included a goal of accepting more recyclable materials.
“If you can do the recycling locally — create the recycled products, ground down the glass — it’s much more environmentally friendly to collect it here and use it here,” Karin Hilding, senior project engineer for the City of Whitefish, said.
Glass is not accepted in Whitefish but Hilding said that could be on the table in future years, possibly in conjunction with Xanterra. Glacier National Park’s concessionaire, Xanterra currently accepts glass from the public at its offices in Columbia Falls and has used that material in a number of its own landscape, concrete and other projects.
Matt Folz, Xanterra’s director of sustainability, said the company has seen a more than 40 percent increase in glass collection each year since the program began in 2014 and that the community collection site received more than 1,000 pounds of glass each day during the peak summer months.
Glass collected in Columbia Falls is picked up by New World Recycling, processed using their glass pulverizer — the only one of its kind in the Flathead Valley — and then sold by New World, including back to Xanterra. New World does not accept glass directly from community members.
New World, however, is also facing significant change. Owner Teri Schneider said a personal issue is forcing she and her family to close the business they have owned and operated for eight years at the end of December, although she is hopeful a local buyer will step forward to keep the pulverizer going.
“It’s something everybody wants here,” Schneider said. “We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into this business and it was very hard to say goodbye.”
Despite the challenges, Folz and Hilding are still bullish on the future of recycling in the Flathead Valley. Both cited the work being done by the nonprofit group Citizens for a Better Flathead and its WasteNot program that promotes sustainable waste collection and disposal.
“I’m in the business of sustainability so I’m always optimistic,” Folz said. “But it’s one of those things where we’re going to have to be better at recycling and have to look at local solutions, and not look at larger markets or other countries.”
Flathead County does still accept cardboard and paper recycling at Valley Recycling collection sites. To view a list of locations, click here.
To learn more about the WasteNot program, visit www.wastenotproject.org. Those interested in acquiring New World Recycling and its glass pulverizer should contact Schneider at (406) 260-3317.