Plastic Recycling Returns to Flathead Valley

Valley Recycling now accepting plastic bottles, milk jugs at Kalispell facility, more than a year after collection ceased at Flathead County green-box sites

By Andy Viano
Plastic recycling bins at Valley Recycling in Kalispell on March 21, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For the first time since February 2018, Flathead County residents can recycle some of their plastic waste thanks to a new pilot program at Valley Recycling in Kalispell.

Residents can bring transparent plastic bottles of any color — like water or soda bottles — and clear milk jugs to Valley Recycling’s facility at 1410 U.S. Highway 2 West in Kalispell during regular operating hours, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Valley advises residents to remove lids from bottles before dropping them off, and adds that no opaque white milk jugs can be recycled. The bins are located just outside the main building but behind a gate that will be closed and locked during off hours.

The new pilot program was launched on March 4, more than a year after the company announced it would no longer be collecting plastic or tin at Flathead County green-box sites because Chinese processors had ceased accepting American recyclables. China’s decision was based primarily on the amount of contaminated materials they were being sent by American companies in the form of non-recyclable plastics or other non-recyclable waste. Valley Recycling operator Mike Smith said 30 to 50 percent of the material the company collected at green-box sites was contaminated, and the problem was not just limited to the Flathead Valley. Recycling programs around the country have been scaled back or canceled altogether since China’s decision.

“(China) was tired of being the world landfill,” Smith said. “Americans as a whole have been recycling wrong for a long time and we just didn’t know it.”

In response to China’s decision, domestic processors have begun taking on select clients, albeit with a low tolerance for accepting contaminated materials. Valley has found one such company to accept plastic, hence the pilot program, and has been contacted by a few others since in recent weeks. Valley is optimistic local residents will comply with the new guidelines, both because the drop-off location is restricted and because an appetite exists to lessen the amount of waste piling up at local landfills.

“For the most part, the people that are recycling a lot, they want to do the right thing,” Smith said. “So many times, our bins in town were being used as free dump sites for garbage or sometimes the signage might not be clear … We hope that this time it will be different.”

Plastic recycling bins at Valley Recycling in Kalispell on March 21, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

So far, the results have been encouraging. In the two weeks since collection began, Smith said he and his coworkers have removed precisely eight unauthorized pieces of waste, almost all of which was put there accidentally. He said one woman even called to apologize after realizing she had mistakenly put something in the wrong bin. If the program continues to be successful, Valley could expand the program to accept more plastics or even resume collection of steel (usually tin cans).

“We’re running the pilot program for anywhere from three to six months, we’ll see how it’s going, and if the contamination rate gets really bad again we might have to stop again,” he said. “If the contamination rate is really low we always have the possibility of expanding.”

Valley Recycling still collects cardboard and paper recyclables at locations throughout the Flathead Valley, and accepts aluminum cans at green-box sites in Somers, Lakeside, Bigfork, Creston, Columbia Falls and the Flathead County Landfill.

For more information on Valley Recycling’s pilot program, visit www.valleyrecycling.com.

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