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Despite low market prices, recycling remains beneficial: Kandiyohi County's recycling program

Dean Sandberg, of Willmar, left, an employee at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center, and his supervisor, Gregg Schake, empty a bag of aluminum cans Jan. 17. Although the recycling market is marred in a slump, county officials say they have yet to even enter-tain to notion of cutting back their services. Recycling diverts about 7,000 tons of waste from going to the county landfill each year. Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer

WILLMAR -- The economic slump has hit the recycling market, with lower prices being paid for products like cardboard, newspaper and aluminum.

The bottom dropped out of the market in October following months of high demand and high revenues for recycling programs, like the one operated by Kandiyohi County.

"It's tough. Like every other business in the country," said Terry Rice, recycling operations manager for West Central Industries, which has a contract with the county to process and market recyclable materials.

Even though the revenue has been reduced, the county has no intention of scaling back its recycling program, said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

Recycling diverts about 7,000 tons of waste from going to the county landfill each year, said Jeff Bredberg, director of Kandiyohi County Environmental Services. "Saving space at the landfill" delays construction of a new cell, which can cost up to $1 million.

The county "takes great pride" in its strong recycling program, Kleindl said. "It's still cost-effective to recycle and I encourage people to keep recycling."

For most of 2008, recyclables generated good money.

The final numbers aren't in yet, but Bredberg said 2008 could be "one of the best years we've ever had for generating revenue."

But the markets, and the revenues, have been going downhill since last fall when prices offered for recyclables dropped 50 to 75 percent.

"It started in October and kept sliding horribly for three months," Rice said. "We try not to think about it. The work is here but the money is not."

In early September, the county and West Central Industries were selling cardboard for $101 a ton. Now they get $36 a ton.

Bales of recycled magazines, which fetched $125 a ton in September, are now priced at $40 a ton.

White ledger paper was $275 a ton; it's now $180. For sorted office paper the recycling center had been getting $194 a ton in September but now receives $90 a ton.

The price for newspaper had been $150 a ton. The current price is $90 a ton.

The drop in price for aluminum cans has no doubt caught the public's eye. In September the county was paying people 73 cents a pound for pop cans that were brought to the recycling center. The current price paid to the public is 21 cents.

The price drop is because the demand for recycled materials has diminished, especially from China, which had been a big purchaser of American recycled products.

Recyclables are like any commodity that suffers from the ebb and flow of the market, said Kleindl. "That's the way it goes."

Some recycling centers have had difficulty finding markets to sell their products and have begun stockpiling. Some private recycling centers have even shut their doors.

So far, Kandiyohi County has been able to sell everything and hasn't started stockpiling. That's due, in part, to the program's good reputation for sorting products to meet customer's high standards.

"I still have markets because we've gone overboard on quality," Rice said. "So those markets, if they can use it at all, they'll still take it from us."

Recycling is more than just getting revenue that, even in a good year, helps the program break even. "It's still about recycling," Rice said. "It's all about going green."

Kleindl said the low commodity prices for recycled products shouldn't deter people from recycling.

"Please don't throw them away or put in the road ditches. We want people to keep recycling."

"We've made such nice progress in this county (with recycling). It would be a shame to slow it down," said Rice.

Kandiyohi County has a unique recycling system that involves partnerships with the community corrections department and West Central Industries, a nonprofit organization that, in part, provides employment for people with disabilities.

Individuals in the county's Sentence to Service program provide free labor to collect recycled materials throughout the county that are brought to the recycling center in Willmar. The county owns and maintains the building and equipment used to process and house the materials.

The county has an annual $218,225 contract with West Central Industries to sort and market the materials. As an incentive to maintain a high-quality product and top dollar in the market, West Central Industries shares revenues with the county.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750