Talking Trash

How Missoula can bring its recycling program out of the dumps



The clear plastic Jiff peanut butter jar stands out against the opaque white milk jugs, not because it’s the wrong color, but because of the peanut butter globs that smear the inside.

On the top of a collection bin outside the BFI Recycling Center on Spruce Street, the peanut butter jar will not join its neighbors on the long journey to a new life as a laundry soap bottle or a shipping pallet. After being sorted by hand on a conveyor belt, the worthy will be compressed into a bale about three by four by six feet and weighing around 800 pounds, then trucked to Portland or Seattle.

The encrusted peanut butter jar is just today’s most visible sample of the 30 percent of plastics dropped off at the center that are either contaminated or the wrong type, says the center’s manager, John Harrigan. Rather than progressing along the great wheel of plastic reincarnation, the rejects go straight to the dump.

“Eighty percent of the people in Missoula are really good,” Harrigan says, when it comes to sorting their recyclables. But instead of asking questions about what the center can take, some people “just drop off whatever.”

No doubt the person who left the dirty Jiff jar earnestly wanted to save the earth. And the rules of recycling are admittedly arcane and baffling—tin cans can have the labels left on, plastic bottles must have their lids taken off. One easy rule to remember, Harrigan says, is that “if it came with the newspaper, it can go out with the newspaper.”

In spite of all the mess that comes in, each month Harrigan and his staff manage to process more than 800 tons of dropped-off materials, blue bags collected from residences, and items funneled through Missoula Valley Recycling’s collection service. In addition, BFI has a regional corrugated cardboard pick-up program that hauls the cardboard straight to the paper mills from large businesses like Wal-Mart that have their own balers.

In the back of the recycling center’s warehouse, a two-story stack of bales of tin cans glints in the dim light. These 1,300-pounders represent three months of collecting. The cans have “zero market value” says Harrigan. “It costs me $25 a ton to bale.”

Aluminum scrap—which includes everything from drink cans to the Missoulian‘s printing plates to old radiators—does actually pay. Harrigan can clear a 30 percent profit on aluminum, though you’d have to drink a six-pack a day for seven years to amass a 600-pound bale of cans which BFI could sell for $300.

The largest fraction of the overall monthly volume is some 225 tons of cardboard, which frequently goes to the Smurfit-Stone Container linerboard plant in Frenchtown. But all the cardboard collected in Montana can only feed the pulp-hungry plant for two-and-a-half days a month, says Smurfit-Stone Personnel Supervisor Laurie Jacobson. So Smurfit-Stone buys old cardboard from as far away as the Midwest and Canada to make up the 159,000 tons a year the plant devours. That’s enough to fill Washington-Grizzly Stadium over the top of the bleachers, Jacobson says.

Newspaper is the runner-up in materials collected by the BFI center, at 150 tons a month, much of which goes to Weyerhauser’s plant in North Bend, Ore. Harrigan is proud of the plaques on the wall that cite the quality of the newsprint BFI sends to Weyerhauser. Keeping the paper dry and removing contaminants increases its value, he adds.

All of this sounds quite impressive. Add it to the appliances and other scrap collected by Pacific Recycling, and the mountain of yard waste stockpiled at Eko Kompost, and it seems like a lot is kept out of the landfill.

“Missoula does as good a job as any town that doesn’t have mandatory recycling,” says BFI’s District Vice President Max Bauer. BFI even donates around $2,000 a year to the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department as a thank you for Missoula’s recycling efforts.

But be that as it may, BFI’s landfill receives an average of 650 tons of waste a day from Missoula and Ravalli counties and the Idaho Panhandle, according to landfill operations and environmental manager Jim Lighter. Think of a parade of roughly a half-million pickup trucks with their beds filled level, driving through the gates each year.

As much as 75 percent of that could be recycled, Lighter says, if it were properly separated before heading off to the dump. As it is, after your chicken scraps drip on your newspapers in the garbage truck, they are too contaminated to be salvageable.

Given the fact that you can’t name an environmental issue in Missoula that doesn’t have a local activist group rallied around it, it may seem odd that our recycling efforts aren’t stronger. So you can bet your insulated refillable mug against a stack of Styrofoam cups that lack of effort is hardly to blame for recycling’s slow upward crawl in Missoula.

You can blame it on the very isolation and open spaces that attract eco-freaks to Montana in the first place. Unlike the crowded East Coast, land has been our most available commodity for a long time. Just 30 years ago, says Jim Lighter, there were several hundred dumps scattered across Montana.

As other parts of the nation have faced a landfill crisis, Montana has carried on its proud tradition of getting rid of nearly everything by hauling it to the dump. According to figures compiled by BioCycle magazine in 1996, Montana as a whole only recycles about 6 percent of its total waste, tying with Alaska and Louisiana. Compare this to the national average of 24 percent. The only state below us was Wyoming, with a mere four percent. The top states were Minnesota, Florida and New Jersey, each above 40 percent. Even the similarly remote and rural Dakotas recycle about 20 percent in both states.

“Not very many communities have the luxury of a 25-year landfill,” Lighter says. That’s at least how long BFI projects the current dump will last. Even though that sounds like a long time, Lighter warns, “when this landfill is finally full, the options are going to be very expensive.”

The most likely scenario, Lighter says, is to build a transfer station and start hauling the trash to a massive regional landfill over on the Columbia River. So reducing the volume that goes into our landfill now is still in everyone’s interest, he says.

There are signs that people are slowly changing their habits. BFI’s blue bag program continues to grow. John Harrigan says that right now his crew processes about 4,000 bags a month. It seems rather counter to the philosophy of recycling to have to buy a special bag to put your recyclables in, especially when that bag becomes just another piece of flotsam after it’s emptied. But Harrigan says it’s a “small sacrifice” to allow pickup by the regular trash trucks.

Rumors that BFI is just tossing the bags into the landfill instead of sorting them stem from the way the bags are handled, Harrigan says. Some of the newer trucks have a compartment just above the regular trash hopper, so it may look like crews are throwing the blue bag in with the rest of your household detritus. Also, garbage trucks jettison the blue bags at the landfill and BFI’s main depot. Once a month they’re hauled en masse to the recycling center to be picked over.

But BFI isn’t the only recycler that’s expanding its operations. Missoula Valley Recycling has added around 100 customers to its pickup route this year alone, says MVR’s Kris Zouhar.

“It’s more work and money to use our program, but it’s very educational,” Zouhar says. A customer recently told her on the phone, “You actually have to look at everything you’re going through,” says Zouhar. “It’s more of an impact on your psyche to look at your garbage.”

But along with these modest gains, area recycling mavens are much more ambitious, and they realize that changing the hearts and minds of Missoulians isn’t going to be enough.

The Garbage Marketplace

The obstacles to increasing the amount we recycle can be reduced to three words: markets, markets and markets.

“Recycling is an extremely chaotic affair,” says University of Montana student Christopher Anderson. “What it all comes down to is the geographic isolation of Montana.” Right now, cardboard is the only recyclable commodity collected in Missoula that is also processed locally.

National demand and pricing for recyclables fluctuates on an almost daily basis, says John Harrigan. Unlike larger facilities, the BFI operation doesn’t stockpile materials until the price goes back up. That’s why drop-off bins outside the recyclery may come and go as capriciously as a fall frost. When prices drop below sorting and shipping costs, no collecting.

As an indicator of market volatility, Jim Lighter says he can always tell when the price of cardboard goes down because he sees more of it at the dump. When prices are good, folks will go around and collect it from dumpsters and businesses to make a little extra cash. Furthermore, the supply is there, and there is a steady demand for it. Lighter estimates that as much as 40 percent of the material going into the landfill is paper and cardboard. So when BFI garbage truck drivers report that a particular business is putting a lot of cardboard in the trash, sales representative Brian Hoyer often pays them a friendly call to try to get them to sign up for the company’s cardboard pickup plan.

On the other end of the spectrum is glass, which has become the nemesis of the Missoula recycling community. Glass actually represents a tiny fraction of the waste stream; according to Lighter, recycling every single bottle for the next 25 years would only add a month to the life span of the landfill. But because glass is also one of the easiest things to recover without contamination, and “people want to drink their beer and feel good about it,” Lighter says glass has become the “sexy recyclable.” He praises the promotion of reusable growlers by local brewers as a good solution to the conspicuous accumulation of empties on the back porch.

But above all, the most “frustrating waste” for Lighter is used tires. Just about every weekday, a semi-truck full of old tires empties its load in the Missoula landfill. These all hail from Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, which have outlawed the landfilling of tires on their own soil.

It’s a classic case of the revenge of unintended consequences. Those laws were passed because of the environmental threats of piling up tires, not the least of which is serious fire hazard. But rather than forcing a more earth-friendly solution to the problem at the source, since Montana lacks a similar ban, the state has become a net importer of tires. And since we generate one used tire per year per person nationwide, they will keep on coming.

The tires frustrate Lighter because they don’t break down, they don’t compress and they take up a heck of a lot of space. The steel belts, Lighter says, could be recycled, and the rubber can be chopped up for boiler fuel.

A Kick in the GlassThe Garbage MarketplaceThe Garbage Marketplace

The collapse of glass prices a few years ago left Missoula’s die-hard recyclers bereft of an outlet. Thirty large bins of crushed glass sit in an out of the way corner of the BFI recycling center. They’ve been there since the crash, and will keep waiting for the day when it won’t cost and arm and a leg to move them out the door. Right now, Missoula Valley Recycling charges its customers extra for glass pickup and then pays BFI a nickel a pound to ship it to Denver, Colo., where it goes into Coors beer bottles.

Dale McCormick of the Center for Resourceful Building Technologies sees the solution of the glass problem as creating recycled glass products locally, while simultaneously building a local market for them. Discussions led by Ward One City Councilmember Dave Harmon are currently underway between the city, BFI and other groups to come up with a local use for crushed glass in the underlayment that is put down under new roads. But because “publicity killed the project” the last time a similar attempt was made, according to BFI’s Max Bauer, the involved parties won’t discuss the details until the agreement is finalized.

Although putting glass into roadbeds, as Bozeman and Great Falls have done for several years, does keep it out of the landfill, it is not going to make money for anyone, says Christopher Anderson. Dale McCormick stresses the need to create higher-value products that can actually be profitable to entrepreneurs who are interested in mining the municipal waste stream.

One such entrepreneur is Mike “Ozzie” Oestreich, owner and operator of Ozzie’s Oil Company. Oestreich has been recycling oil for over a decade and was inspired by a workshop this past June sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Center for Resourceful Building Technologies.

The workshop showcased recycled glass products including finely ground glass for use in sandblasting, especially bridges and auto body shops, hand-blown art glass, glass tiles and the fairy dust that puts the sparkle in road and curb striping.

The Missoula Community Development Corporation is helping Oestreich formulate a business plan to launch the project. The first step is funding the purchase of a $300,000 mobile grinder that two semi-trailers would pull up to a collection site. The self-contained unit would churn out six to 12 tons of multi-purpose glass powder an hour. This equipment has “already been invented and this kind of thing is being done every day,” Oestreich says.

“Missoula probably uses 200 to 500 tons of road sand in a winter,” says Oestreich. Substituting ground glass for the sand would mean no dust, and using dark glass might help melt icy patches faster by absorbing more heat. Similarly, ground glass in playground sandboxes would be less dusty and dryer, since the glass doesn’t retain water like sand does. Add it to asphalt and you have a light-weight pothole filler. The list is practically endless.

“There’s probably 200 things you can use glass for,” Oestreich says. “My bottom line is I would like to have a little business spin-off for using glass.”

Fertile Solutions

Meanwhile, on the UM campus, Christopher Anderson is organizing a recycling committee to “serve as a community leader for new initiatives and research projects.” His big emphasis right now is compost.

Since Eko Compost doesn’t take kitchen waste, Anderson is working to raise money to pay for gas so Garden City Harvest can haul compost collected on campus to the community gardens. The Garden City Harvest compost operation would also take some of the compost that the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project has been collecting from area restaurants, but doesn’t currently have an outlet for.

He is most excited by the ultimate vision of separating compost out of the municipal waste stream itself. Anderson thinks that using compost to cap layers of waste at the landfill would help speed decomposition of the entire mass, since the organic material and the microbes that feast on it would be more evenly distributed.

Anderson dreams of a “materials recovery” facility at the dump that would separate everything that could be reused or recycled from the waste stream, including compost and building materials.

“Recycling of construction materials is something Missoula is doing informally,” notes Dale McCormick, what with all of the “To Give Away” ads and help-yourself piles of stuff in back alleys. But with the impending demolition of the St. Patrick Hospital building, McCormick sees the need for a more coordinated effort. “What do we as a community want to do with that besides putting it in the landfill?” he asks.

But as long as private companies like BFI get paid to put things in the landfill, instead of keeping them out, there is a direct economic incentive against recycling anything but the basics like paper and milk jugs. Well aware of the peculiar ecology of trash, Anderson takes the long view. “Composting at UM is one step in a much bigger journey,” he says.

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