After closing its doors for several weeks, the Powell Valley Recycling Center reopened in mid-May with reduced hours and no drop-off bins. Initially, the changes were made to protect employees from …
After closing its doors for several weeks, the Powell Valley Recycling Center reopened in mid-May with reduced hours and no drop-off bins. Initially, the changes were made to protect employees from contracting COVID-19 when they handled materials dropped off at the center. While the disease is no longer believed to spread on surfaces, two months later, the center’s hours remain slightly reduced and the bins still aren’t available.
The City of Powell is receiving complaints from residents, and City Councilor Floyd Young, who is the council’s liaison with the Powell Valley Recycling (PVR) board, asked the board why residents are paying $2 per month to support a recycling center that’s so difficult to use.
“Young people who have families, who are busy, are just paying $2 and getting nothing for it,” Young said in an interview.
Recycling Board President Marynell Oechsner said if the city reduces its support for the organization, the center will close.
“We’re trying to do the best we can, keep recycling available, and keep our heads above water,” Oechsner said.
No drop-off bins
When the facility first reopened, the drop-off bins were not made available. With the bins out, there was no way to know if the materials had sat long enough for any viruses on the surfaces to die. Most of the center’s employees are older people who supplement retirement incomes with the part-time recycling work, and they are in the group of people most likely to develop complications from COVID-19.
That’s no longer the concern, but PVR still isn’t making the bins available.
Oechsner explained that, in order to operate in the black, the board decided not to offer the bins again. When they had the bins available, people weren’t properly sorting the materials they left in them. The employees had to do that. This only added to the facility’s labor costs, which would threaten to make the operation financially unsustainable.
“We get everything from dirty diapers to styrofoam, and our employees have to sort through that stuff,” Oechsner said. “If our employees are spending hours sorting out stuff we can’t get money for, that is costing Powell Valley Recycling money. And we are on a very tight budget.”
Anything they can’t recycle goes into their own trash bins, which they pay to have collected, adding further to their operation costs.
Oechsner said they made less than $1,000 last year. It was a particularly tough year, because China stopped accepting recycling material from America, and cardboard prices tanked. The bales of cardboard piled up in the center’s storage yard. This year, new American processors have come online, so PVR is selling the cardboard they’ve been saving. But they’re also losing support from Park County commissioners, which cut the county’s funding for PVR from $8,847 to $2,500.
“The county is supporting the landfill, but they’re not supporting recycling. There’s something wrong with that picture,” Oechsner said.
Powell Mayor John Wetzel recycles a large amount of his own household trash. He said he was surprised to recently learn PVR stopped taking pasteboard, which is the kind of cardboard found in things like cereal boxes. Wetzel said the list of what’s accepted at the recycling center seems to change a lot, and there isn’t any advertising or other communications to let people know what they can and can’t bring.
Oechsner explained they stopped taking pasteboard because processors started paying less for bales that weren’t mostly corrugated cardboard. PVR used to accept magazines, too, but now processors are rejecting bales of newspaper that are more than 10% magazines.
In some cases, the center accepts materials just to provide a service to the community. Recyclable plastics generally do not make any money, but PVR takes them so long as it can break even on the sorting and shipping costs. But the center has to sort out things like the clear plastic clamshell containers that berries often come in, as processors won’t take them.
“It’s not just us getting picky. It’s the people we sell the material to,” Oechsner explained.
When PVR reopened in May, its hours were reduced to two days a week, Thursday and Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s now operating 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“We need reasonable access,” said Young, saying that the current schedule “is not reasonable — not for a working person.”
City Administrator Zack Thorington said the city gets about a call a week from residents — amounting to more than a dozen calls over the course of the past few months — complaining about the center not being open enough and the lack of drop-off bins.
“Most of them have the assumption the City of Powell runs” the center, Thorington said.
While Powell utility customers pay $2 per month on their bill to support recycling, that money is simply passed along to Powell Valley Recycling — a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that also receives support from private donations.
Oechsner said the idea of staying open until 6 p.m. was to accommodate the schedule of working residents, but no one was coming during those hours. So, they started closing earlier. She said they would offer Saturday hours, but the employees don’t want to work on weekends.
Their employees, all of which work part-time, start at $8.50 per hour — the office manager makes $15 per hour — and there are no benefits. Oerschner said it’s hard to find part-time employees willing to work weekends at the wage PVR can afford to pay. She said the people working there have threatened to quit if they have to start sorting again or work weekends, and it’s difficult to find people willing to work part-time for low wages.
“I have no doubts they’d quit,” she said.
Oechsner said she’s proposed to the board that they open on Saturdays with a skeleton crew, as they have a couple employees willing to work on a weekend day, but she isn’t sure that will move forward.
Young said the center shouldn’t be operating for what’s convenient to PVR’s employees but rather for the residents who pay to support the facility. He also questions how much savings PVR is bringing to the community in terms of diversion from the landfill.
Sanitation Superintendent Darrell Rood said it was difficult to determine just how much financial benefit Powell’s recycling program provides because there isn’t a lot of data on exactly where the recycling is coming from. Many people, including Oechsner, live out in the county. That means, while there may be savings at the county level for diversion, that diversion doesn’t financially benefit the City of Powell and the residents paying the recycling fee.
Rood said, during the last few months, they have seen more cardboard in the trash at the transfer station, which is then hauled to the Billings landfill. Other than that, it’s anyone’s guess how much recycling saves the city money.
PVR is attempting to survey people who use the center, asking if they live in the county, what hours are most convenient for them to use the facility, and their willingness to properly sort materials they drop off.
The problem is, Oechsner said, there’s no way to survey people who don’t come to the facility. She isn’t sure how to get it to more people. With complaints from residents and diminishing support from the county, the frustration on the recycling board is mounting.
“If someone thinks they can run it better, or if the City of Powell wants to take it over, I don’t think anyone on the board would object to that,” Oechsner said.
Members of the board are planning to discuss the issues at the next city council meeting in August. Wetzel said he was pleased to hear they were planning to do that.
“Let’s work together on this,” Wetzel said. “I’m really glad she’s coming to council to talk about it. I’d appreciate some open and frank conversation about the situation.”
Anyone with questions about PVR — what materials they accept, hours of operation or to fill out a survey — can call Myron Heny, Powell Recycling Board vice president, at 307-254-2493.