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Cost remains concern in switching county recycling program

MORRIS – Should Stevens County continue with its existing recycling program or move to a single-sort system?

That was the question Troy Engebretson of Engebretson Disposal and Recycling posed to the Stevens County Board of Commissioners on Monday during a work session on the county's recycling program.

Minnesota's state-wide recycling has consistently stayed between 40 and 45 percent, one of the best in the country.

But Stevens County's recycling rate of 19.8 percent is among the lowest in the state. According to the 2011 Solid Waste Policy Report, only six of Minnesota's 87 counties have a lower recycling rate than Stevens County.

Engebretson said that switching to a single-sort recycling system is the only way to increase the county's recycling rate without building a bigger facility to accept and sort recyclables.

“For the size facility we have and the room we have for storage, we're maxed out with the products we have,” said Engebretson.

Right now, the county offers recycling for five materials: newspapers, aluminum cans, tin cans, glass bottles and jars, and type one and type two plastic. All recycling must be sorted into paper bags and set out for collection separately.

Residents of Morris, Chokio, Alberta, Hancock and Donnelly have curbside pickup once per month, while residents in rural Stevens County have the option to drop their materials off at recycling trailers left in locations around the county throughout the month.

Cardboard is not collected in the curbside bins, but can be dropped off at the rural recycling trailers, a trailer at the Morris City Garage or at Engebretson’s facility just south of Morris.

After the materials are collected, staff with Engebretson Disposal and Recycling sorts the materials to weed out any non-recyclable items, then sells the material to various regional vendors to help offset the cost of the current program, Engebretson said.

With a single-sort program, recycling would look a lot more like garbage collection. City residents would get a second large, lidded container where they could throw all of their recycling. Rural residents would still use the recycling trailers, but wouldn't need to sort out their recyclables before disposing of them.

A single-sort program would also allow Engebretsons to collect more recyclable materials including types one through seven plastic bottles, paper bags, magazines, office paper, milk and juice boxes, phone books and cardboard.

Rather than expanding to accept more products, Engebretsons would instead take the unsorted recyclables to a sorting facility in Sauk Centre for processing and sales. Although Engebretsons would no longer be selling recyclables to help offset the cost of the recycling program, the company will save on labor and fines associated with poorly sorted materials, he explained.

Unfortunately, the cost calculations for switching to the new program are difficult to estimate and will depend on whether or not a new program could increase the county's recycling rate.

The single-sort program would require several capital investments. The approximately 2,300 recycling containers would cost between $100,000 and $114,000, depending on the size. Engebretsons would also need to purchase an additional automated truck to pick up the containers, an estimated $45,000.

Engebretson estimated that the operating costs of the two programs would be nearly identical, but revenue under the single-sort model would be lower because Engebretsons would not be selling recyclables to other vendors.

On the other hand, if the program succeeds in increasing the recycling rate, it could decrease the cost of disposing garbage because there would be less garbage to burn or bury, Commissioner Ron Staples noted.

Although all five commissioners indicated they support moving forward with a new recycling program, they acknowledge the difficulty will be figuring out how to pay for the initial capital costs.

Options include increasing the solid waste service fee, increasing the overall tax levy or charging residents a small monthly fee for the recycling program.

At the end of the work session, the board told Environmental Service Director Bill Kleindl to work on getting better cost estimates for how much the county could save by increasing the recycling rate and asked Engebretson to look at planning how the program would work and bring the information to the first board meeting in May for action.