A 21 percent drop in the prices paid for recycled materials has reduced revenue for Blaine County’s recycling program, but the program remains financially healthy, according to county Operations Director Char Nelson.
Nelson said the average price that the program receives for its materials has dropped from $118 per ton last year to $94 this year. That’s resulted in an equivalent drop in revenue, from $104,087 during the first seven months of fiscal 2012 (Oct. 1 through April 30) to $82,030 during the first seven months of fiscal 2013.
The price drop is due to lower demand for recycled materials in China, which has been buying a huge proportion of items recycled in the United States. But in February, China enacted Operation Green Fence, setting tougher restrictions on contaminants in batches of recycled items.
That policy has hit single-stream recycled materials especially hard. In single-stream recycling, all recycled products are tossed into one bin and are later sorted at a specialized facility.
Shortly after the county took over operation of the recycling program from Southern Idaho Solid Waste in October 2011, it began to consider a switch to single stream. The idea is to increase participation, even though it results in a less valuable product. Last year, the county adopted a “modified sort” system. Instead of placing seven materials—glass, plastic, tin, aluminum, newspapers, magazines and mixed paper—into six bins at the curb, residents now put them into three bins.
“Had we gone to single stream, we’d be in dire straits right now,” Nelson told the Blaine County commissioners during a recycling program budget presentation in mid-May.
In an interview, Nelson said the recycling program in Boise has to pay a hauler $1.50 per ton to take away its single-stream recycled materials, while Blaine County is able to sell all its pre-sorted materials. An additional benefit to pre-sorting is that the materials can be sold in Idaho, while single-stream batches have to go to Washington or California. That saves on shipping costs.
The Blaine County recycling program doesn’t actually make a profit, since it continues to be subsidized by tipping fees charged trash haulers at the Ohio Gulch Transfer Station. The program gets $5 from each $65-per-ton fee paid.
In 2012, the recycling program earned $181,774 from materials sales and received $133,810 from tipping fees, resulting in total revenue of $315,584. According to the Blaine County budget, the program’s expenses were $276,386.
That means the recycling program is costing the county about $90,000 per year, about what it was when the program was operated by Southern Idaho Solid Waste. However, County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said there are advantages to the county’s having taken over the program.
“We can be more directly involved in the program,” McCleary said. “We’ve put a lot more energy into outreach and education.”
She said that includes an advisory committee that helped the commissioners’ decision to adopt the “modified sort” system. She said the county is also better able to keep track of the program’s accounting.
She said that if the county were not recycling, its trash hauling costs would increase.
Nelson said the recycling program’s financial reserves continue to accumulate, and she anticipates that it will have about $110,000 by the end of 2013. She said the reserve fund will be used for equipment maintenance and the purchase of new equipment.
Commissioner Larry Schoen said there’s “no question” that the recycling program has improved under the county’s management.
“My hope is that the program will be, if not profitable, at least more self-sustaining and more justifiable on an economic basis,” Schoen said.
This spring, the program announced the winner of a T-shirt design contest open to all Blaine County students. The shirts, made from recycled cotton, plastic water bottles and X-ray film, are being sold at cost for $15. They are available at the county Noxious Weed Department in the Blaine County Annex building or on the website www.5brecycles.org. The site also contains information on recycling.