HAMILTON – Last year, the nonprofit Ravalli County Recycling organization collected over a million pounds of recyclable material, earned a state award and got its new baler up and operating.
Very soon, the organization will begin collecting recyclables in Stevensville in the parking of the Burnt Fork Market.
They’ve come a long ways since a group of volunteers pulled together to start the nonprofit about five years ago.
Even with all that progress, the organization’s president, Pam Small, said there are still plenty of challenges to meet to ensure the long-term viability of the recycler.
Chief amongst those is navigating the roller-coast of a market for cardboard at a time when there’s a glut of the material nationwide.
“We’re not alone in that,” said Small. “With the downturns in the economies of China and other places, the whole recycling industry is facing challenges. There’s a glut of cardboard just sitting around. That’s the single biggest item that we take in at this point.”
Behind aluminum, cardboard has been the largest moneymaker for the nonprofit.
Over the past few weeks, Ravalli County Recycling has been losing $100 every time it transports a load to Missoula.
“The price for everything has just crashed,” Small said. “Mills in the Northwest have tons and tons of cardboard stockpiled. In the past, a lot of the cardboard went to China, but after their economy slowed, that’s all changed. Now 80 percent is being recycled in the United States.”
Last year, the nonprofit earned almost $16,000 from aluminum. Its second-largest revenue source was cardboard, which brought in about $11,000.
“Our next closest moneymakers are nowhere close to those amounts,” she said.
Non-ferrous metals and newspaper each brought in about $3,000 and tin cans added another $2,200. The recycler received a pittance for plastic. Plastic bottles brought in about $400 and colored plastic about $180.
While plastic is a challenge to deal with, Small said it’s important to recycle as much as possible.
“It won’t break down forever,” she said. “Certainly not in our lifetimes. … Aluminum is the clear winner when it comes to recycling. It’s much cheaper to recycle it than to mine more bauxite.”
The nonprofit hopes it can search out better markets for plastics and cardboard now that its bailer is up and running.
Dave Martin serves as the production manager at the organization’s recycling site just north of Hamilton.
Martin said it took some experimentation to determine the correct density for bales of plastic bottles and milk jugs.
“Four of our bales just exploded when we first started,” Martin said. “We had to play with it a little bit to find the right density.”
With the plastic now in bales, the hope is that more of it can be shipped at one time to places where businesses are paying a little bit more for the material.
“If we have to ship this to California, then it eats up most of what we make to pay for the shipping of it,” Martin said. “We will try to find some buyers who are a little closer to cut down on those costs.”
Martin and others are working their way through a large backlog of plastic stored at the site in hopes of getting it all baled soon and ready for shipment.
“We still have a lot to do to catch up,” he said.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality recycling and marketing specialist Dusti Johnson said recyclable materials are commodities whose prices are always somewhat volatile.
“Sometimes there’s a glut in the market and the prices go down,” Johnson said. “It’s really no different from farming and ranching. If you are raising cows and suddenly there are lot of cows on the market, then prices go down. Recycling businesses need to have long-range goals to mitigate those swings in price.”
Recycling in Montana is particularly challenging because of the distance to markets.
On cardboard, Johnson said she talks directly with many of the mill managers around the country. At this point, they tell her that there’s so much material in the pipeline that they don’t have to go much beyond a 50-mile radius to get what they need.
“So that means that folks like us are having to take a loss on it right now,” she said.
Johnson said the state is looking at ways to develop local markets for some the material.
“We are searching under every rock and trying to find ways to reuse this material for something,” Johnson said. “We want to keep this stuff local and provide jobs, but right now those markets are still pretty small.”
There is innovation happening, she said pointing to Missoula’s Bayern Brewing as a perfect example. That company purchased a bottle washer and reuses bottles that are returned to it.
“More and more people are looking at ways to recycle,” Johnson said. “We need to change our way of thinking and do something different. Money is getting tighter and businesses are looking at ways to save. Cutting down on their waste stream can be a savings to their bottom line.”