Public opinion could sway recycling decision
Published 6:01 am Sunday, July 26, 2015
The Mower County Board of Commissioners is nearing crunch time in its discussions of whether to stick with its current sorted recycling program or switch to single-sort recycling, and public feedback could be the deciding factor.
“We want the input before we make a decision,” 1st District Commissioner Tim Gabrielson said. “To me, I could go either way with it.”
The board is set to get more details at its Tuesday meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m., about the per-residence increase in costs of a switch to single-sort, which should kick off a key period of discussion and public feedback from the board.
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“It would be the time to make your voice heard,” said 4th District Commissioner Tony Bennett.
The county board first started discussing single-sort recycling in June 2014, but discussions stalled and the board jumpstarted talks in February as a way to keep more recyclables out of landfills.
After months of discussion, commissioners aren’t swaying one way. Like Gabrielson, Bennett is still open.
“I don’t have a strong opinion on this particular topic,” he said.
Initially, most commissioners noted in meetings that public feedback slightly favored single-sort recycling, but many people have told Gabrielson they’re content with the sorted method.
In talking with neighbors and some constituents, Bennett said people tend to like single-sort until they hear of the projected cost increases.
All Mower County residences currently pay $16 to $18 a year for sorted recycling as part of county property taxes, whether they recycle or not. The single-sort fee set to be announced Tuesday would also come off property taxes, and county officials previously estimated it could cost $4.25 to $5 a month — $51 to $60 a year, which Bennett said is comparable to neighboring counties.
Most people Bennett has talked to don’t want to pay that much.
“People are tired of paying more money,” he said.
Though Bennett and Gabrielson are both undecided on single-sort recycling, both have voiced concerns, which start with the expected cost increase.
As of the board’s July 14 meeting, the county had received two bids from area waste companies. Waste Management bid about $821,000 to offer curbside pickup to all county properties, while Advanced Disposal bid about $641,000 to cover curbside pickup in all Mower County cities, along with pickup at special sites. But County Coordinator Craig Oscarson told the board then that Advanced Disposal’s bid may not qualify under state bidding practices.
While Gabrielson is open to the program, he’s looking at the big picture and has concerns about the longterm viability of such recycling programs after researching the issue.
Gabrielson referenced the June 20 Washington Post article “American recycling is stalling, and the big blue bin is one reason why,” which states that companies like Waste Management are losing money nationwide on recycling after a variety of factors have driven down the value of recyclables. The changes have meant a trend of shrinking profits for waste companies and rising costs for municipalities to recycle.
“I want to see what the people think, but I want them to know why we need to look at a big picture,” Gabrielson said.
David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, told the Washington Post the struggles with recycling are a “nationwide crisis” and said the company “won’t stay in the industry if we can’t make a profit.”
That left Gabrielson fearing what would happen if Mower switched to single-sort recycling for a seven-year commitment, dismantled its recycling center and its equipment only to see the industry’s struggles continue.
The struggles made Gabrielson leery of giving up the current program, which he called a “pretty darn good” and cost-efficient program, in favor of something that might not be sustainable.
“I hate to see us give that up,” Gabrielson said.
However, Julie Ketchum, director of government affairs for Waste Management in Minnesota, said the state’s single-sort recycling has been smooth and profitable.
“I think single-sort is a really good, solid program,” she said. “It’s a great way to increase your recycling rate. Once its implemented, people love it and they don’t want to go back.”
Despite concerns nationwide about the viability of the program, she argued that’s not the case in Minnesota.
“In Minnesota, we are an anomaly here,” she said. “We have a really good materials coming into our facility.”
A shifting market?
While there’s a market for plastics No. 1 and No. 2 — the only plastics currently accepted in Mower — Bennett and Gabrielson both voiced concerns that there’s not much of a market for Nos. 3-7.
“Certain products are more valuable than other products,” Bennett said.
Gabrielson said there’s a reason the county uses its current system of separating recyclables into three bins.
Likewise, Bennett said some have questioned the legitimacy of single-sort actually increasing the amount of recyclables and reducing the trash in landfills, as tainted or less valuable recyclables may end up in the landfill anyway.
However, Ketchum said single-sort has increased the recycling volume in Minnesota communities by about 30 percent, though some communities have seen 50 percent increases.
“It’s very easy and convenient for the resident, and because of that ease and convenience there is more material that is put out at the curb,” she said.
Last year, leaders in Steele, Freeborn and Winona counties told the Herald single-sort recycling has been a positive change that’s increased the amount of recyclables.
Last July, Collin Wittmer, recycling coordinator in Steele and Freeborn, estimated 58 percent more recyclables had been picked up in Steele County since the change, with similar numbers in Freeborn.
“We’ve seen a large increase with recyclables,” he said.
One concern is that the unprofitable recyclables will end up in landfills anyway, and a bigger concern is that the public will become lax and contaminate the recyclables by either not rinsing or cleaning them or by throwing general trash in recycling containers — both of which could cause the products to end up in the landfill.
“People are going to throw things in the bins that aren’t supposed to be there,” Bennett said.
Gabrielson also feared residents would become lax with the larger bins and become convinced that they could put recyclables out with rinsing them, which could then mold and then be thrown away.
But Ketchum said dirty recyclables and trash mixed in with recycling haven’t been a major issues in the Twin Cities, as she said people are very good at recycling.
“We get a very clean recycling stream at our Twin Cities MRF [material recovery facilities],” she said.
Waste Management has also working with large manufacturers and Fortune 500 companies in the state to look for ways to become make packaging sustainable. For example, Ketchum told of the company telling manufacturers about glueing styrofoam to cardboard, which taints the cardboard and means it can’t be recycled. Now that they know that, some manufacturers are looking to package products without that glue.
“Are we going to solve all of the problems, probably not, but we’re making an effort and things do change,” she said.
Even though people can be resistant to change, Ketchum encouraged people to support single-sort, adding she’s confident people will like it once they’re comfortable with it.
“I’m confident that we will get the material processes, recycled in a manner that meets expectations,” Ketchum said.
The county initially opened bidding for waste contractors to pick up all household single-sort recycling in the county to then transfer to a sorting site, but county employees and commissioners have voiced concerns about the cost of countywide residential pickup.
In June, the county board approved a bid alternate to only offer residential pickup in incorporated cities to potentially limit the cost increases. Rural homeowners would then have to take their recycling to drop boxes maintained by the contractor.
Gabrielson voiced concerns about rural homeowners wanting or using single-sort bins.
No need to rush
Once the single-sort costs are announced Tuesday, the board will have several weeks to discuss the issue, potentially 60 to 90 days, according to Gabrielson.
“Want to be fair and try to get as much feedback as we can, because it’s a controversial deal,” Gabrielson said.
The board isn’t rushing to a decision since the county has a contract with CedarValley Services to pick up recycling through March 31, 2016.
“We’re under contract right now with Cedar Valley, so there’s been no reason to rush through anything,” Bennett said.
If the board voted to switch to single-sort, it would begin until April 1, 2016.