Keeping the Recycling Boat Afloat

Since Houston County, Minn.'s recycling program started in 1990, one of its primary goals has been county-wide participation, including residential, commercial and governmental agency cooperation. Another goal has been to stay financially viable by selling its materials to end markets.

Until recently, Houston County has met both objectives. The recycling program has been known throughout Minnesota for its cutting-edge ideas and programs, earning it the distinction of 1996 Recycler of the Year by the Recycling Association of Minnesota (RAM), Shoreview, Minn., as well as recognition from the National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C. It also has attained its goal of county-wide support, garnering an 81 percent participation rate among the county's 19,245 residents.

Lately, however, depressed recycling markets have slowed the county's efforts, creating a problem because it subsidizes a large percentage of its $358,000 budget from the sale of materials. As a result, the county has had to close some of its recycling programs.

In 1998, about 55 percent of the budget, or approximately $198,000, came from the sale of materials. The county also received $55,000 from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance (OEA), St. Paul, Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment (SCORE), funds which are collected from the state of Minnesota and distributed to counties based on population. To round out the budget, approximately $105,000, or 29 percent, came from taxes.

Lower prices for recyclables are causing some cutbacks in the recycling effort. However, many of the county's programs still are a viable part of the county's waste management operation. Despite market downturns, innovative ideas and programs are being developed in hopes that they will ensure a bright future for Houston County's small recycling program.

In the Beginning When Houston County began its recycling program in 1990, the first order of business was to gain support and participation from its seven cities and 17 townships. To do that, the county created a uniform curbside bag collection system with two vehicles, a hook-lift truck and a van. Additionally, the county built two supervised drop-off sites for collecting and disposing of problem materials, or materials that don't fit into a normal 30-gallon bag, such as toys, appliances, electronic goods, household furniture, lead acid batteries and tires.

In 1990, the county accepted five materials: glass, newsprint, corrugated cardboard, No. 2 high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic and aluminum. But even then, the county-operated facility needed to subsidize a large percentage of its budget from the sale of materials.

Through diligent research, the county found buyers. Glass was sent to Anchor Glass, Minneapolis, for processing, and No. 2 plastic was sold to Phoenix Recycling, Roseville, Minn. Local farmers used shredded newspaper as animal bedding instead of straw.

"It was a local market and it was fairly steady," says Nick Nichols, recycling coordinator.

In December 1992, using Minnesota OEA grant funds, Houston County collaborated with Woodlands Industries, an adult handicap workshop in Caledonia, to open Twice is Nice, a used clothing store. Partially furnished with donated display racks and materials from a local, large department store, the retail operation removes textiles from the waste stream, then cleans them up and sells them. Store profits are funneled back into Woodlands' program to keep it running and participants working.

When nonrecyclable pesticide/herbicide plastic containers started appearing in the county's unsupervised recycling sheds in the early 1990s, the county found that the material could be granulated and made into plastic pallets. In Houston County, pesticide/ herbicide products users are instructed to slit the bottoms of their containers, triple rinse them and take them back to the point of purchase where county recycling trucks pick them up. Containers are taken back to the recycling center for storage and then are delivered to United Agri Products (UAP), Kasota, Minn., for processing.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), St. Paul, instituted Houston County's program statewide in 1994. In 1998, 71 out of Minnesota's 87 counties participated in the Waste Agriculture Pesticide Container Program, which generates an average of 125 to 130 tons per year (tpy) of containers, according to Steve Poncin, pesticide regulatory advisor for MDA.

Adding Commodities As the markets grew over the years, so did Houston County's recycling program. Eventually, the county started accepting No. 1, No. 3 and No. 7 plastics; office paper; steel cans and ferrous metals. Additionally, aluminum was accepted and has since become a substantial money maker for the operation.

"We took a look at aluminum markets in the early 1990s and there were a couple of buyers in the area, but there wasn't a lot of activity," Nichols says. The county started out purchasing about 37 tons per year (tpy) of cans from residents and selling them to Alcoa Aluminum through the Alter Scrap Metal Company, La Crosse, Wis. "Now, people are used to bringing their cans to us," Nichols says, noting that in 1998 the county collected approximately 129 tons of aluminum.

As Houston County's recycling program grew and prospered, innovative programs, such as the ClassCycle Bikes project also began to surface [See "County Peddles Bicycling Program," page 62].

In September, the county received a Minnesota Great Award for its achievements in this program.

Struggling With Markets Today, participation is not a problem. The county operates with two hook-lift trucks, one van and one pick-up truck and is hoping to get a third hook-lift truck next year, Nichols says.

The county also has added three more drop-off sites. The sites, located in or near the county's larger cities of Caledonia, Hokah, Houston, La Crescent and Spring Grove, have helped decrease illegal roadside dumping, Nichols says. Users are charged $1.50 for a 30-gallon bag of trash; 10 cents per pound for demolition materials, including sheet rock and shingles; and recyclables are accepted at no charge. Each city collects the fees, then reimburses the county, which covers disposal costs and site maintenance.

Nevertheless, Houston County, like many other municipalities and private recyclers, is struggling with depressed markets. The county recently was forced to stop accepting No. 3, No. 5 and No. 7 plastics, and has considered eliminating plastics processing altogether. It currently is accepting No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, which still are being baled and sent to Phoenix Recycling.

Because of the low prices for glass, the material now is crushed by a local quarry and mixed with gravel for Minnesota's roads.

"It costs more in labor to keep the glass clean and to crush it, so we had to find another end-use," Nichols says. The county does not receive revenue from the glass, but it is able to avoid transportation costs and the costs to inspect the glass for contaminants.

A private food waste processing business that the county helped to start also has fallen victim to hard times after the hog market slowed in June 1998. Previously, the county worked with a local farmer who picked up food waste from local restaurants and institutions to feed his hogs. The program, which saved the restaurants $15 to $20 per ton in disposal costs, has ceased because the farmer no longer can afford to run it.

In addition, the county now is diverting some of its No. 8 newspaper as a result of weakening dairy markets. "The market for animal bedding has gone soft because there are fewer farmers," Nichols says. Now, about 50 percent of the county's 345 tpy of newsprint is baled and sent to Rock Tenn Recycling in St. Paul.

Future Bound Yet, the outlook is not completely bleak. The bike project and pesticide/ herbicide recycling programs still are in operation, and the five drop-off sites still are accepting recyclables. And while it waits for the plastics market to pick up and overall recycling markets to improve, Houston County is relying on creativity and innovative thinking to keep it moving forward and providing services to its residents.

For example, the county suffers the state's highest incidence of La Crosse Virus Encephalitis, which is a disease carried by mosquitoes that can affect the brain.

Last year the recycling program joined with the Houston County Public Health Nursing Department to apply for a $24,990 grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), St. Paul, for the collection of tires that had accumulated in roadside ditches and were attracting pests and insects.

The 30-day program, which started May 22, 1999, was expanded to cover a county-wide tire amnesty program for residential and agricultural property owners. Approximately 38 semi-loads of about 10 tons each were collected and transported to Auburndale Recycling Center, Auburndale, Wis., where they were shredded and shipped to a paper mill for use as fuel.

In addition, the county participated in a 10-week electronics collection and recycling pilot program that ended in September called the Minnesota Electronics Recycling Project, teaming with the Minnesota OEA; Sony Corp.; Matsushita/Panasonic; the Waste Management-Asset Recovery Group, Phoenix; and the American Plastics Council, Washington, D.C.

Initially, Sony asked the Minnesota OEA to help it test collection for discarded electronics products.

"They were looking for a collection infrastructure that we already had," says Tony Hainault, project coordinator with the Minnesota OEA, noting that Sony did not want to reinvent the wheel by designing and implementing collection methods.

In turn, the Minnesota OEA was looking for ways to market these types of recycled materials at a better price, Hainault says.

Electronics were collected by nine collection site hosts around the state, including Houston County, Hainault says. They tried a variety of collection methods, including curbside, drop-off, retail stores, one-day events and ongoing collection programs, he says.

In all, 24 large boxes of electronics equipment were collected from the drop-off sites. The Waste Management-Asset Recovery Group will process the materials and together all program partners will evaluate the cost of collecting, dismantling and processing the electronics, with the goal of finding end markets for the products' glass, metal and plastic.

Glass will be evaluated for glass-to-glass recycling and plastics will be considered for use in high-end markets, such as new electronics.

"These are plastics that even in today's depressed market should command a high price," Hainault says. "Or recyclers should at least be able to avoid the $65 per ton disposal cost [on Minnesota]."

An end-of-the-year report will discuss the project and how it might be translated to other states. "We really are trying to evaluate the overall costs of electronics collection and the opportunities for marketing these materials to see what it would cost to pull them out of the waste stream."

Refurbishing discarded bikes is more than just a hobby for some Houston County, Minn, residents. It also is a learning opportunity for local high school students and a potential boon for the tourist economy.

The ClassCycle Bikes project originated in 1997 when the county noticed a large quantity of bikes being deposited at its drop-off sites.

Thinking that the bikes might draw tourists to a state bike trail that was being connected to Houston, the county joined the city of Houston and the local high school to form a business to repair the bikes and rent them along the trail.

A class was created at the high school specifically for the program, which received several grants from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCMR), the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Foundation, St. Paul, and the Southeast Minnesota Initiative Fund (SEMIF), Rushford, Minn.

With financial support from Minnesota's school-to-work program, which provides hands-on job related learning experiences to students, the county created a nonprofit 501C3 corporation.

The corporation opened a store in March 1999 called ClassCycle Bikes and Recreation in an empty downtown building in Houston.

Since the opening, the store has rebuilt approximately 50 bikes using parts and components taken from a stock of 100 used or abandoned bikes that Houston County recycling initially donated to the program. The store continues to receive from seven to 10 bikes weekly, according to Steve Kerska, project director.

"The goal is to supply the community with bike sales, service and repair," Kerska says. "Houston County is positioning itself as a biking community to capitalize on tourist dollars that will flow in from the nearby state bike trail under construction." Fifty miles of the trail already are finished, and the connection to Houston will be completed this fall, Kerska says.

In addition to removing bikes from the waste stream and providing a service to Houston residents, the bike project allows students to learn valuable business lessons, he adds.

In 1997, the Houston high school students formed their own board of directors, and now they are learning how to operate a small business.

Eventually, the goal is to raise sufficient funds to build their own building on land donated by the city. There also is another board of directors comprised of local community leaders. "It is a good melding of resources," Kerska says.