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Government

Whitefish to Permanently Close Recycling Site Jan. 31

Citywide curbside program set to begin in spring; temporary recycling site established in 2015 has been plagued by contamination, illegal dumping

By Tristan Scott
Recycling bins in Whitefish on Oct. 25, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Since opening in 2015, the containers at Whitefish’s central recycling site regularly overflow with cans and cardboard during peak demand periods, a persistent challenge that set city officials on a years-long course to settle on a mandatory curbside recycling program.

With the city’s recent decision to move forward with bids for a residential curbside recycling program slated to go online this spring, the central site will permanently close on Jan. 31, leaving Whitefish residents without a centralized recycling depository but also saving the city tens of thousands of dollars and curtailing the problems with contamination and illegal dumping that have beset the site since its inception.

“The existing site has been plagued by contamination and overuse, and the proposed fees to continue the operation of the facility are not cost effective,” Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said. “I believe permanent closure of the current site is in the best interest of the city as we continue to pursue the best option to provide recycling services to our residents and business owners.”   

The site was opened in 2015 as a temporary location to consolidate the three existing neighborhood recycling sites and to streamline operations for North Valley Refuse (now Republic Services), the refuse contractor which provides recycling services for Whitefish.

The property where the site is located, at the corner of Railway Street and Columbia Avenue, is also being repurposed for affordable housing, and its closure sooner than later provides for more immediate use of the property by Whitefish Housing Authority to clean it upon initial snowmelt, city officials said earlier this month.

Members of the Whitefish City Council recently considered several options to continue to provide recycling services, but determined the costs to continue to operate the existing site exceeded the benefits of recycling during the final few months that the city has access to the property.

In order to continue operating the site until spring, the city would have been on the hook for both hauling and processing fees estimated to cost between $44,000 and $60,500, drawing from unbudgeted cash reserves in the city’s General Fund. By closing the site on Jan. 31, however, the cost to the city is between $16,000 and $22,000.

In April 2021, when Republic Services was first identified as the low bidder for a citywide curbside recycling program, the company committed to continue servicing the centralized recycling site at no cost to the city until the curbside program was established. The expected roll-out of the program at that time was summer or fall of 2021.

“With the process for the curbside recycling program taking longer than originally expected, Republic Services requested the city pay for the cost of materials processing for the centralized recycling site while Republic Services would continue to haul the materials at no cost to the city,” according to Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith’s staff report to council.

Although city officials acknowledged that more recyclable materials are likely to end up in the landfill due to the removal of the free centralized recycling site, problems with contamination have become so significant that Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said the value of maintaining the site for a few more months was negligible.

“I think it’s time we take this site offline,” Muhlfeld said. “It’s unsightly and it’s not fair to the neighbors at this point. I can’t imagine how much of the recycling bins are contaminated and are just going to the landfill anyway.”

Rather than search for another site for the centralized recycling program, Whitefish councilors as well as the city’s Climate Action Plan have identified single-stream curbside recycling as having the most substantial positive impact on community waste diversion. The curbside program will not only result in a higher probability of capturing recycling, which addresses the goals spelled out in the Climate Action Plan, but it also addresses contamination caused by individual customers more effectively than a central site.

A curbside collection program also does not require the construction and maintenance costs associated with developing a new central site, which is estimated at approximately $185,000, according to Workman, who noted in December that the latest agenda item marks the sixth time that council has taken up the matter of recycling in the past year.

As Whitefish finally closes in on a curbside collection program and makes improvements to its solid waste collections by purchasing animal-resistant containers for both trash and recyclables, recycling services will remain available to those interested through private vendors and county-operated drop-off sites located throughout the valley. For a full listing of recycling options, visit: https://www.wastenotproject.org/recycle/#where_to_recycle.

Additional questions about the site closure may be directed to the Public Works Department at publisworks@cityofwhitefish.org or (406) 863-2460.

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