Budget shortfalls led the Buffalo/Johnson County Recycling Center to reduce its hours last spring, down to only weekdays from its previous seven days a week. That didn’t stop the center from shipping off nearly 1.6 million pounds of cardboard, paper, plastic and glass in 2020, a roughly 30% increase over the annual averages since 2017.
Shortly before the center shut temporarily amid the first round of coronavirus-related business closures, board members asked the city council and county commissioners for $28,000 in additional 1% funding to help tide the center over until the next round of distributions in the summer. They received a combined $20,000 in early May.
Although public funding is the center’s primary source of operating money, it has typically also earned some cash selling bales of cardboard, paper and plastic. Low commodity prices throughout 2019 had substantially dried up that source of income for the center and left it without enough funding to make it through the fiscal year.
When it reopened, with a bit of fresh 1% funding and warnings from the community’s elected officials to be more careful with spending, it did so with the reduced schedule, eliminating weekends and select federal holidays.
Yet that didn’t stop the center from hitting its record-setting numbers in 2020.
“Being closed over the weekend and everybody just piling in during the week, we haven’t slowed down one bit; we’ve actually maybe even gotten busier,” said Don Verger, the recycling center foreman.
Board member Phil Gonzales said the increase was largely glass and cardboard — more people buying things online and drinking wine during the pandemic, he speculated.
“We went to four loads of glass,” Gonzales said. “That’s a lot of glass. Usually, we only do two. There’s about four or five thousand pounds per load.”
In the past, users were even allowed to drop their recyclables off after hours, and employees often had to wade through piles of to-be-sorted products when they arrived at work in the mornings — particularly on Mondays. Now, Verger ropes off the center at night, and the workers are able to stay better organized and start with a blank slate each morning.
“We continue to struggle with the conflict between providing services for the community and keeping our costs of the center down,” said Bill Ostheimer, the center’s board chairman. “Not being open on the weekends is certainly inconvenient for folks, including myself, but we’ve seen a reduction in our payroll costs by doing that and we have a lot steadier stream of stuff coming in, which has helped with scheduling.”
At a recent county commissioners’ meeting, Ostheimer said he faced questions about no longer offering 24-7 access. While the center does make some money selling commodities, the bulk of its funding comes from joint city and county 1% funds, he said.
“I responded to that, saying, ‘Please give us more guidance,’” he said. “And we’re closed on the weekends to save money, because that’s the communication that I get, mostly that ‘You’re too expensive, what do you do to save money?’”
While some users have complained, the reduced hours, payroll savings and improved commodity prices have helped improve the center’s financial outlook.
Back in the summer of 2019, it actually cost the center money, about $15 per ton, to get rid of cardboard after shipping costs were taken into consideration. Commodity prices continued to fall as months went by, prompting the center to store its cardboard in baled rows behind the building waiting for the market to rebound.
By spring, as the pandemic hit, the center was finally able to get to break-even prices on cardboard. Now, Verger said he is able to make money again, roughly $45 per ton.
“Aluminum is up, cans are up five cents from a few months ago,” Verger said. “We’re still doing pretty well with cardboard. We’re not making a killing, obviously, but we’re afloat with it.”