The price of paper

Bales of cardboard are stacked and extend behind the recycling center while decision makers wait for its price to rebound.

On the surface, nothing seemed amiss at the Johnson County Recycling Center last month.

Behind the scenes, however, recycling center foreman Don Verger was working hard to secure a future in which the facility could continue to accept mixed paper.

Verger is not only responsible for the center’s day-to-day operations. He is also tasked with selling the accumulated bottles, boxes and jars that pour through its labeled portholes each day. Critically, he must do so at prices that keep the lights on and the forklifts rolling.

His paper-peddling efforts paid off last week at the Wyoming Solid Waste & Recycling Annual Conference in Sheridan in the form of a new partnership with Utah-based Interwest Paper, a deal that will allow Johnson County’s devoted recyclers to continue using the center as before.

“I went to Solid Waste to get a feel for what they’re doing,” Verger said. “A big part of it was just meeting people.”

Waste management demands strong relationship skills: By the time he returned to Buffalo, he had the buyer he was looking for.

Tough markets

In the past, most U.S. recyclables on the road to reprocessing were destined for China. Over the last few years, however, that country stopped accepting nearly all foreign paper and plastic products.

China was fed up with having to manage the world’s often poorly cleaned products, wanted to prioritize processing the recyclables of its own increasing population, and more recently, had a list of scores to settle in an ongoing tariff battle with the Trump administration. As the U.S. was unprepared to process the waste domestically, communities across the country found themselves without buyers, many reduced the products they accept, and some even resorted to dumping their bottle backlog into landfills.

“We have to get through the short-term bottleneck with the foreign markets not existing anymore,” said Bill Ostheimer, chairman of the Recycling Center Joint Powers Board. “There isn’t the infrastructure built up in the United States yet.”

Locally, consistently high usage rates demonstrate that the community values the ability to recycle. According to a 2018 Harris Poll, almost 80% of Americans have a curbside recycling program, but about two-thirds of respondents also said they would not recycle if it was not easy or convenient.

Johnson County’s recyclers, who must transport and sort recyclables themselves, defy those statistics. Despite the relative inconvenience, the center takes in an average 1.2 million pounds of recyclables each year. Measured in empty pop bottles, that quantity of waste would fill more than two full-sized truck beds per resident – or Buffalo’s biggest-outdoor-pool-in-Wyoming more than three times over.

Paper problems

Verger’s recent search for a new paper market was complicated by the fact that limited equipment at the Johnson County facility reduces his buyer options.

Typically, recycling centers compress accumulated, sorted products into massive bales. Bales are widely accepted and often fetch a better price than boxed loose product. While cardboard and cans are baled in Buffalo, the center currently only has a vertical baler, and that makes baling mixed paper – a category that includes junk mail, office paper, catalogs, paperback books – a bit messy.

“Those glossy magazines slide out and the whole thing comes apart,” Verger explained at a joint powers board meeting on Aug. 12.

A typical horizontal baler costs more than $30,000. That’s a big ask for the center, whose 2018-19 fiscal year revenues totaled less than $150,000, not enough to fully cover operating expenses.

Without the baler, the center must transport its paper in boxes that are large enough to hold four or five second graders. Up until last week, Verger had only managed to find one buyer, Colorado-based Sage Recycling, that would accept boxed product. This week’s deal with Interstate Paper expands the center’s options and gives its foreman more confidence in his ability to continue accepting a variety of products – at least, for now.

“It all depends on the 1% funding, if we can afford things,” Verger said of the potential for upgrading his baler fleet. “That’s what keeps us afloat.”

Cardboard conundrum

The cardboard market isn’t what it used to be either. Today, rows upon rows of stacked cardboard bales extend into the lot behind the recycling center. Every week, that stash grows, expanding into limited storage space as Verger waits for its price to rebound.

“Cardboard historically has been really, really good,” said Ostheimer. “That’s why we’re so aggressive about getting it; that’s why we go out and collect cardboard in the community. We were able to get pretty good money for that – up until the end of 2017.”

Once shipping is paid, current prices mean that it actually costs the center money – about $15 a ton – to move the big, brown bales today. At that rate, it would cost $4,500 to ship out the 300 tons of cardboard the center processed last year.

“Every other recycling center in the country is doing the same thing,” Verger said of his cardboard-hoarding strategy. If the prices go up, he worries that everyone might start to sell. That would flood the market, pushing the price back down.

“We think it might be this way for at least a couple of years. That stuff used to be worth money,” Verger said.

The joint powers board has loosely discussed alternatives such as diverting cardboard to the landfill’s composting program, but landfill manager Bob Fox said he doesn’t have the equipment to properly shred it.

Ostheimer noted that there is also a lifecycle benefit to recycling, rather than composting, the cardboard.

“When the market comes back, we want those to go into new cardboard boxes,” Ostheimer said.

Tough choices

In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the recycling center took in $135,408. More than 80% of that was from a combination of city and county 1% taxes, meaning that less than a fifth of the center’s income comes from selling product.

“Glass, we break even on glass,” Ostheimer said, of one example of the constant decisions the center faces about which products to accept. “But that glass, once it gets down to (Coors) represents a 90% energy savings over making the bottles out of the old bottles, and we don’t have to mine all the silica to make new glass.

“We’re providing an environmental benefit, but Buffalo is not quite the recipient of it. We’re treading water. We’re paying it forward to somebody else.”

Particularly since the center stopped accepting all #3-7 plastics, Ostheimer said that the most important thing people can do to prevent waste is to pay attention to the packaging of the products before they buy them.

“The recycling triangle has an order: reduce, reuse, recycle,” he said, “Reduce is the most important.”

Community contribution

The center may not make money for itself, but it does provide a financial service to the community by extending the life of the Johnson County landfill. Based on historical figures, Fox estimates that local recyclers’ waste diversion habits earn the landfill one extra year of life every eight years.

That extension pays off. It cost $3.1 million in 2015 to open two new 3-acre cells at the landfill. With current technology and equipment, that should be enough to hold the county’s trash until 2030. According to Fox, two additional cells that could be built for another $1.88 million would buy another 25 years. He estimates it will cost yet another $7 million to close down the facility once it is full.

Landfill construction is funded with a single mill levy each year, deposited in a dedicated savings account. The size of that mill, based on the county’s valuation, has steadily decreased since 2012, after the coalbed methane bust.

“When we first started (saving), it was $1.1 million,” Fox said. “Last year they didn’t even get $300,000, which seems to be the trend with the loss of revenue from the oil and gas industry. It just makes it harder and harder to plan.”

Value or values?

At a household level, the decision to recycle is often more based on values than money.

“If you’re in the county, you don’t have a trash truck coming to your house, and you have to pay (by weight) at the dump,” Ostheimer said. “I have talked to a number of folks that are county residents and they get it. The more they can separate out and take to the recycling center, the less they pay. Financially, in the city, there’s no incentive.”

Verger believes that personal beliefs about the importance of waste reduction play into the community’s strong recycling habits.

“There are a lot of people who are die-hard recyclers,” he said. “They come here religiously. A lot of people think it’s the right thing to do.”

That’s why he and the board think it is important to keep accepting as many products as possible, even those that don’t pay.

“Unless we were only to take high, high-grade stuff like the metals and office paper, recycling costs money,” Ostheimer said. “If we just did that, we could probably be in the black, but then we’re not fulfilling a part of our mission at the recycling center.”

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