Waste haulers performing curbside recycling pickup in Crow Wing County are wrestling with challenges associated with providing recycling services while facing increasing costs of services and tackling a loss of funding from the state.

Until recently, dropoff sites and waste haulers providing curbside pickup in Crow Wing County received subsidies to help offset costs to provide recycling. The county decided to provide that Select Committee on Recycling and the Environment (SCORE) funding only for dropoff sites in 2020. It's a decision some haulers are unhappy with, and others support.

Pequot Lakes Sanitation

Waste hauling and recycling have changed significantly in recent years. Overall, between growing waste streams, shrinking markets for materials and contaminants, providing recycling as a service is seen as unsustainable by some haulers.

“What's the point?” said Taren Saccoman, CFO of Pequot Lakes Sanitation. “We provide large, 65-gallon carts for recycling and that's about the same as the average garbage container. We provide those to about 85% of our recycling people. That matches the size of their trash can. We don't charge them more to recycle. If you think about it, we are buying an $80 cart, providing a driver with wages, taxes (and) insurance to drive a second, $200,000 garbage truck with additional tires, insurance and maintenance to go to their house weekly to haul away recycling. Then we have to pay twice as much to dispose of the recycling as the trash costs us. The trash costs us $50 (per ton), the recycling is $107.20 (per ton), and we can't charge for that. What smart business person would even do that? It's not a smart business (move) for anybody.”

“We're sinking with recycling,” said Tyler Gardner, Pequot Lakes Sanitation owner.

Pequot Lakes Sanitation will lose approximately $1,300 a month with the loss of SCORE funding to provide curbside recycling pickup in Pequot Lakes and Breezy Point. Though they don't consider it a large amount, combined with the added challenges of recycling they say it adds up.

For one, when they first started offering recycling in 2005, the value of recycled aluminum and cardboard offset the cost of providing recycling for less desirable materials. Around 2015, Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in Minnesota switched to a single stream service, allowing customers to throw all their recyclables into one bin, meaning the valuable recyclables were no longer separated from the others.

On top of that, the market for both aluminum and cardboard dropped out and the MRFs adopted higher standards for the waste streams they accept because of a combination of growing contamination rates and the shrinking of markets in China for less desirable materials.

Of course, all these challenges spelled increased costs for the transfer stations, waste haulers and, eventually, likely the consumers.

Saccoman and Gardner say the county is pushing the challenges of cost and disposal onto waste haulers while the state, county and municipalities dictate how haulers are allowed to dispose of waste. For one, the state says waste haulers cannot charge those who recycle more than they charge others in the same community who do not recycle. Municipalities on the other hand, often dictate that haulers must offer curbside recycling to maintain licenses in their communities.

Pequot Lakes Sanitation believes both policies, combined with the loss of SCORE funding, are responsible for making their business less profitable.

“If we are haulers, we have to have curbside recycling,” Gardner said. "That starts on the city level. They are the ones that make those ordinances, which they can reverse. I talked to Ryan Simonson at the county, he said his thoughts were that the haulers would just charge the people more.”

“You can't raise everyone's price,” Saccoman said. “There are a lot of people that don't recycle, but you would have to (raise prices across the board). The rules are old. They have stated forever that you can't charge a person more in the same neighborhood just because they recycle. That rule is old. It was made when it wasn't costing us. Now that's it's not free, we should be able to charge accordingly. If you recycle and someone else doesn't, I don't think they should pay for you to recycle.”

Saccoman and Gardner are on the war path encouraging governing officials at city, county and state levels to take action and make waste hauling more affordable. They have attended city council meetings to educate council members on the challenges of waste hauling. They are encouraging those city representatives and others to request the county restore SCORE funding to haulers, and they have contacted the office of state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, seeking help with both the statute on charging for recycling and for changes to the way SCORE funding is distributed.

Waste Partners

Perhaps surprisingly, Eric Loge, co-owner of Waste Partners in Pine River, disagrees on some of these stances. Loge is responsible for pushing to have city licenses dependent upon haulers also offering curbside recycling. Loge not only supported the withdrawal of SCORE funding from curbside programs, he has recommended it to the county in the past and views the statute banning special fees for recycling as an important law.

Loge said municipalities requiring curbside recycling and the state banning special recycling charges guarantees a level playing field for waste haulers. In addition, he sees it as an all-or-none proposition. Without these rules, it is likely no waste haulers would provide curbside recycling at all simply for cost reasons.

“If it's mandated that you have to do it in these communities, at least everyone is on the same playing field,” Loge said. “We're all required to provide the same service. That's what I wanted to get in Pine River. I believe there are a few more communities that should have to require it as a matter of licensing in their communities in order for their programs to stay viable. There are some cities we service - Crosslake is one of them - that do not have that rule yet. Someone coming in that offers our service without recycling can certainly do it cheaper. They can be $10 a month cheaper just by not providing recycling.”

Though Waste Partners is located in Pine River and is the new manager for Cass County dropoff sites, Loge said he is still charged the same fees at Cass County transfer stations for any recycling he collects in Brainerd/Baxter, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point, Crosslake and Jenkins. The waste from those communities is from outside of Cass County, and it is charged that way.

He also deals with the same statutes and ordinances. However, Loge is more open to the idea of increasing his service charges to make up for the loss of SCORE funding. He believes the change prevents haulers from doctoring their records of how much recycling they took in to get more SCORE funding.

“It'll require a price increase,” Loge said. “We're planning for it right now. We're making letters that will go out into our mailings and we'll see what that process will be. I honestly like it because it creates an absolute level playing field with your competition. If they were willing to cheat, there was no enforcement agency.”

Loge also plans to change how Cass County dropoff sites operate in the hope of reducing the cost of waste disposal to the county and ultimately passing that cost savings down. He plans to do so by reducing contamination from films and plastic bags at dropoff sites by providing a place where residents can throw away bags after emptying their contents into recycling bins.

He also plans to strategically divide his single-stream recycling back into multiple streams in some places to reduce how much recyclable paper mixes with broken glass. He believes in a significant savings by separating paper, glass, cardboard and box board.

Loge also sees the numbers from a different angle. To him, if a customer is paying $25 a month for services from Waste Partners, approximately $10 of that will pay for recycling depending on their specific location. If that same family produces 50-60 pounds of trash per month, only 5-6 pounds of that is recycling. That recycling weighs less, but takes up more volume by weight. That volume (and the size of trucks) can also have an impact on which communities require curbside pickup.

“We're estimating that $9-$11, depending on how far from the recycling center and how tricky their service is,” Loge said. “That's why Nisswa doesn't have curbside. They have so many streets that are dead ends and you can't get down them. You can get down with a garbage truck because they make small garbage trucks, but they don't make small recycling trucks. You get down to the end of these driveways and there are people who don't want you backing up in their driveways and leaving ruts.”

In addition, Loge and other haulers are able to provide a savings to their customers because the state does not tax recyclables, whereas garbage hauling is subject to taxes, including those used in SCORE funding.

Should you still recycle?

Perhaps the difference in haulers' opinions on these policies is based in their opinions of recycling as a whole.

“If, in a perfect world, everyone who recycled, recycled properly, it would definitely be worth it,” Gardner said. “There is a use for a lot of that stuff. Do I recycle at home? No. We don't recycle here. It's a losing proposition.”

Loge believes the value of recycling depends on the angle you view it from. It may be easier for many consumers to view recycling favorably.

“From a purely selfish standpoint, you can get a smaller garbage can and save money per month on trash service,” Loge said. “The other side, as far as the overall savings to our planet and environment, absolutely it's doing good. You look at tonnages that are being taken out of the waste stream and are being recycled and used again.”

Viewing recycling positively from a financial perspective as haulers is more difficult.

“From a cost standpoint on overall dollars, that's a harder argument to make,” Loge said.

Asked if recycling was worthwhile, Saccoman reflected on the financial challenges and said, “At this point, no.”

Challenges

Loge doesn't differ from Saccoman and Gardner on all points. Most of the challenges on waste haulers are undeniable. Just as single-stream recycling eliminated a source of funding for Pequot Lakes Sanitation by mixing valuable aluminum with other worthless recyclables, single stream is responsible for actually creating yet another form of contamination.

Because they are being collected and stored together, a large amount of broken bottles were mixing with recyclable paper, making that paper a contaminant.

“Most paper that is recycled is used for facial tissues, hand towels, toilet paper, and these large companies are using that used paper,” Loge said. “They don't want glass in that product.”

In the past, this contaminated paper would be sent to China along with other contaminants so that MRFs could meet state guidelines for waste contamination percentages. China no longer accepts less desirable, contaminated recyclables from the United States.

In addition, the expensive, complex equipment used for single-stream recycling is not compatible with wires, films like plastic bags and many other contaminants.

“When we started recycling we could take plastic bags, no problem,” Saccoman said. “Nobody ever complained about that. Now, they've discovered plastic bags ruin the machines that sort the recycling. They are so expensive to fix that no plastic bags are allowed at all. We're supposed to take them out, but now that we have single stream you can't see what's in the cart until you dump it.”

It's commonly believed that these contaminated waste streams wind up in landfills instead of recycling; however, Loge said that's illegal in Minnesota except under certain circumstances. Unless the hauler providing these materials can prove there is no place for unwanted materials, and explain how they plan to eliminate these unwanted materials in the future, it's illegal to put these materials in the landfill.

In the case of the recyclable papers mixed with glass, the state has determined the problem is caused by the way the collectors store the glass and other materials, so it cannot legally be sent to a landfill in Minnesota. Loge noted that they may be going out of state.

Apathy and lack of education are huge issues with recycling. Loge and Gardner referred to something called “wish-cycling," a term that refers to people's desires to recycle anything and everything, even if it's not recyclable.

“They wish things could be recycled,” Gardner said. “They feel like they can, so they just throw it in there and let somebody else handle it. I took a picture of where they dump and there was a power wheels car in the recycling pile. Laundry baskets, all these plastic items that really aren't recyclable.”

Loge referred to an old expression that people now ignore out of a desire to do good.

“It used to be, 'When in doubt, throw it out,'” Loge said. “That's still the mantra.”

Not only do you have to be aware of which items are recyclable, you should be aware of which are recyclable in your area. It's regional.

“Just because it's plastic or just because it has a recycling symbol doesn't mean it's recyclable in your area,” Loge said.

People are simply not well versed in the guidelines of recycling. Gardner said that includes city officials.

Of course there is also the 10% of people determined to ruin services like this for everyone involved.

“It's everything imaginable. Deer season is terrible,” Loge said.

Another problem facing haulers in Crow Wing County is the lack of a county recycling facility. While Cass County handles recycling at its transfer stations, Crow Wing County puts the impetus on waste haulers to arrange recycling. Loge said the county uses collection from commercial sources to meet state goals on recycling in lieu of providing a place for haulers.

Saccoman said this forces haulers to pay more by hauling recycling out of the county. Loge believes the county's interpretation of statutes in this way not only burdens haulers but does not match the spirit or intent of what state rules say.

Overall, fixing the state's recycling woes will inevitably depend on action from the state, county, municipalities and even consumers themselves.