WILLMAR — Time may be up for the nearly 30-year-old, multi-sort recycling program run by Kandiyohi County. Changes in technology and the economics of recycling mean that the county system cannot meet the needs of modern-day recycling.

"I believe today that we are at a crossroads with our current multi-sort and a possible transition to single-sort recycling," said Gary Geer, county environmental services director.

During Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board meeting, Geer requested board approval to begin looking into starting a single-sort program, which would be run by an outside provider. The approval was given unanimously.

Recycling has been an important piece of Kandiyohi County's solid waste program since 1991.

"Kandiyohi County has long sought to make it as easy to recycle as it is to throw things away," Geer said.

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The current system has residents separate paper goods from plastic, glass and aluminum; uses Sentence-to-Serve volunteers to collect the recycling left on the curbs; and employs West Central Industries clients at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center to sort it even more.

Today, most counties have contracts with waste haulers which pick up recycling in the same manner as trash. Residents are able to mix all of their recyclables together, making it easier to take part. The haulers then deliver those recyclables to large material recovery facilities, where it is mostly sorted using robotic equipment and then processed for sale and use.

"We are one of the last shops that do it the way we do it," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl.

There are many reasons why Geer has recommended turning to a single-sort system. Over the last 25 years, the volume of recyclables collected by Kandiyohi County has stayed the same, hovering between 3,000 to 4,000 tons a year, only about 16 percent of the county's total waste load. The state wants rural counties to recycle at least 35 percent of its total waste by 2030.

"We hit a plateau in the amount of volume of materials generated. It has stayed remarkably level for 25 years," Geer said.

That is a problem because recycling only pays when done in large volumes. It is easier to find buyers for recyclables in larger numbers. The hope is starting a single-sort program in Kandiyohi County will increase the number of people participating and how much is being collected.

"Which would in turn create the third goal of landfill diversion," Geer said.

The more recycling done in the county, the less waste put into the landfill. If the landfill would reach capacity, the county would have to transport its trash to another landfill, which would cost hundreds of thousands per year.

"Recycling equals landfill diversion which equals savings to the public," Geer said.

If the county wanted to continue its own single-sort system, it would require significant investments in its equipment. Geer said in the next few years many of the machines at the Kandiyohi County Recycling Center would need to be upgraded, costing around $630,000.

And in today's reality of COVID-19, reducing human contact with the recyclables — which would be possible in a single-sort — and the decrease in needed employees should be considered, Geer said. Due to the pandemic, the county program is shut down currently with no timetable for a return.

While the commissioners approved looking into a single- sort system, they do have concerns. They asked staff to keep all parties, including cities, up to date on the process. There were also worries about West Central Industries.

"We have to do what is fiscally responsible for the county, I am just concerned about the impact on some of our disabled citizens that are going to be left in the lurch," said Commissioner Rollie Nissen said.

It most likely it will be months before a new system is in place, but the first steps are being taken. Kleindl said the county isn't making this decision lightly, but it can't delay the change anymore.

"I don't think we have a lot of choice going forward," Kleindl said.