A bottle in front of me

What Whitefish has that Missoula doesn't: glass recycling



The fliers appeared around Whitefish last July, photocopied and modestly designed in a style normally reserved for bars announcing live music and families alerting the neighborhood to a lost pet.

These fliers had a similarly homemade look, but carried a message that came to many as a welcome surprise. The top line read: “Earth First! Recycling.” At the bottom there was a phone number (863-9311) and a name: Cory Cullen.

After circulating more than 3,000 fliers in Whitefish, Cullen received a couple hundred calls and is now busy serving 112 paying clients (including Whitefish Central junior high school). For $6 a month, Cullen picks up recyclable cans, newspapers, magazines, white paper, cardboard and plastics. For $10 a month, he’ll also pick up glass—a service once but no longer offered in Missoula, but now up and running in Whitefish.

Cullen, a recent graduate of Montana State University, says he wants to eventually pursue a career in wildlife photography. But for now, he’s just barely getting by recycling. Cullen says business picked up after he changed his company’s name from “Earth First! Recycling” to “New World Recycling.” (He even recycled his fliers, whiting out “Earth First!” and using magic marker to write in “New World.”)

“Earth First! was rubbing people the wrong way,” says Cullen. “I disregarded the first couple of people…as closed-minded. But then enough people said something so I decided to change the name.”

“New World Recycling,” Cullen says, is a better fit for the Flathead, where businesses boast about being supported by timber dollars and bumper stickers ask “Have you bitch-slapped an environmentalist today?”

Even in this less-than-green climate, Cullen continues to offer Whitefish residents glass recycling, something that’s eluded the far more eco-friendly city of Missoula.

Demand for glass recycling in Missoula remains as strong as the city’s thirst for good beer. But a program launched in 2000 lasted only a year. The city began collecting glass, which it crushed and used as base material in road projects. Bozeman and Great Falls continue to maintain similar programs, but Missoula’s public works department was quickly overrun with far more glass than it could ever use.

In Whitefish, Cullen pays to ship his collected glass to a company in Smelterville, Idaho. He gives the bottles and jars away for free, and the company grinds them down for use in road construction. Other materials he turns over to a pair of larger recycling companies in the Flathead, most of it for free as well. Cullen does get paid 28 cents a pound for aluminum, a little more than half the current market rate.

Unlike aluminum, newspaper, magazines and cardboard, there’s no ready market for used glass. And newsprint commands just 5.5 cents a pound, while cardboard and magazines sell for around 4 cents per pound. Cullen hopes to soon “cut out the middleman” and begin selling the aluminum and bundles of cardboard and paper directly to large buyers.

That move could boost Cullen’s revenues, but for now, with so few paying customers, New World Recycling grosses only about $1,000 a month. The 28-year-old says he’s “not losing any money, but I’m not saving any money either.”

To cut costs and increase his take, Cullen will soon purchase a six-cubic-foot cement mixer capable of crushing his glass. He hopes to use his first batch as a support surface inside his dirt-floored garage. On top of the glass, Cullen plans to pour concrete. He figures he’ll need five to six months worth of beer bottles to complete the job. When asked about the amount of glass currently being dumped in Flathead County, landfill director Dave Prunty just sighs and shrugs.

He doesn’t know the exact amount, but he says this past October, the county recycled 37 tons of materials, the largest monthly volume in the last five years. That same month, 8,239 tons of rubbish were buried at the dump.

Flathead County currently sells its collected recyclables, but it still costs the county at least $500 a month to run its modest program. Flathead offers no curbside pick-up and maintains only a handful of drop sites.

Prunty says in the late 1990s, the recycling business was booming nationwide and the money made from selling raw materials helped municipalities pay for expanded recycling services.

“When commodity prices go up, you can make money,” says Prunty, who’s currently soliciting bids from three private companies interested in running the county’s recycling program. Unlike New World Recycling—a business whose assets include one 12 by 8 foot trailer, a rusted ’88 Subaru wagon, and enough spare change to photocopy fliers—the companies bidding to take over the county recycling contract have heavy-duty trucks and full-time staffs. But none offers curbside service. That would require a significant increase in the amount residents pay for garbage pick-up, says Whitefish Finance Director Mike Eve. Right now, says Eve, Whitefish is already “spending way too much for recycling because of a bad contract we’re in.”

Under the new contract, says Eve, the number of drop-off sites in Whitefish could decrease from four to one located “in the heart of the city.”

That’s good news for Cullen, whose service might appeal to Whitefish residents who want their recycling to be more, not less, convenient.

“They’re not even equipped for a town this small,” says Cullen of the Whitefish recycling program, which has no plans of adding glass to its list of recyclables. In Missoula, the no-glass policy has been met with the appearance of half-gallon beer growlers that can be filled and refilled by local breweries and thereby cut down on the number of beer bottles headed to the landfill.

If Cullen ever opts to offer his Whitefish customers growlers, they would probably be filled with Kokanee and Black Butte Porter, the two most commonly recycled beer bottles in a bottled beer-drinking town.


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