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2020 record year for Big Sky recycling

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The Big Sky recycling site off of U.S. Highway 191 features seven bins that collect cardboard, No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, steel and aluminum cans and mixed office and Newspaper. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Organizers say growing center needs leadership

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – In 2016, after a year without recycling in Big Sky, three partners came together to establish a recycling center. The recycling center has since become a community staple with total material gathered in 2020 surpassing the 2019 total by more than 90,000 pounds. Now, with growing needs, one of the original organizers says the center is in need of leadership. 

During the year without recycling, John Haas, founder and president of Haas Builders, realized that except for two waste management companies, nobody had really come forward to lead the charge to implement community recycling. 

“This is when I decided to step up and get involved,” he wrote in a recent email to EBS. 

Haas joined Dave Leverett, co-owner and founder of We Recycle Montana, and Jim Simon, district manager of the Gallatin Solid Waste Management District, to set up the current recycling center located off U.S. Highway 191. 

Haas said many community members and businesses have pitched in support for the center throughout its existence including his employees at Haas Builders, Alan McClain with Big Sky Landscaping, the Simkins family, Moonlight Painting, Kevin Barton from Ace Hardware, and Jeremy Harder and Brett Slehofer who organized the paving of the site. 

The current recycling center has been operating for five years now and in 2020 collected 386,580 pounds of total material, according to We Recycle Montana counts. But in a growing town, Simon says it may not be enough. 

“It’s a bit undersized for the volumes that we’re seeing especially during the seasonal highs,” he said.

The site currently features seven bins, six of which are for cardboard. The remaining bin is divided into three sections to collect No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, steel and aluminum cans and mixed office and newspaper.

Simon said that while the site has been greatly improved and handles traffic flows, there is still an issue with blowing debris which, if it becomes too much of a problem, could be grounds for removing the site. Both Haas and Simon encouraged residents to recycle properly and refrain from dumping trash at
the site. 

“There are a handful of wonderful community members who do help keep the area clean,” Haas said. 

The recycling center is a free service subsidized by the fees collected at the Logan Landfill, according to Simon. To provide that free service, Simon said the district is spending about $300,000 to $350,000 a year, county-wide, on the recycling program, a number which is subject to change based on the commodity market. 

In addition to those costs, maintenance or cleanup activity, such as a call to
come and collect improperly dumped waste, costs about $24,000 a year according to Simon. 

Leverett of We Recycle Montana, the organization contracted by the Gallatin Solid Waste Management District to haul recycling from the Big Sky site to their location on Jackrabbit Lane, said that Big Sky is the most logistically challenging of the Solid Waste Management District sites that they service. This is due to the long travel time up the Gallatin Canyon and the number of pickups required to maintain the site.  

There was a significant uptick in cardboard recycling this year due to the increase in online ordering prompted by the pandemic, according to Leverett, and his organization typically runs pick-ups four days a week. After a Friday afternoon pickup, the site tends to be full again on Monday, he said.   

Not only does the drive up the Gallatin Canyon make pickups more expensive and logistically challenging, but international policy also plays a role in local recycling programs. 

Simon said that he saw a significant bump in costs when China put up their “Green Fence” in 2018 which banned other countries from shipping plastics there and required a higher quality of cardboard. He explained that back in 2010, the average cost to haul and process recycling was about $42 a ton. Today, he said, it has raised to over $200 a ton though costs can fluctuate depending on the commodity market and cost offsets.

Locally, recent growth in Big Sky also has had an impact on the
recycling program.

“The future of growth in Big Sky, makes many things like the recycling center uncertain,” Haas wrote. 

One factor that could help ensure the longevity and growth of the Big Sky site would be unified leadership for the recycling center.

“If not for Dave Leverett with We Recycle Montana and Jim Simon with Gallatin County Solid Waste Management District, we would probably not have recycling at all,” Haas said. 

Leverett echoed Haas, concurring that leadership is “desperately needed.” He also suggested that a self-contained compactor at the site would greatly increase capacity and reduce the number of pickups needed. According to Leverett, one compactor could hold 8,000 pounds of cardboard on average which he estimates could reduce pickups to once every week or 10 days at the non-commercial site.

In order to grow and implement something like a compactor, the recycling center needs funding, and it is uncertain where that funding could come from. Simon emphasized the difficulty of finding a new location for the recycling center as well as the high costs of expanding and staffing it.

For now, Simon says there’s something the community can do: “Make sure that people take care of the site and respect it and respect the neighbors around there. It’s a donated site, it’s a free service that can go away, so we don’t want to have that happen.”

Currently, the site, donated by Haas, is doing its job and the Big Sky community has kept the site clean and operating. The three partners have turned their gaze to the future and hope to establish more permanent leadership.

“It would be sad to see all the hard work of this community fall to the wayside, without some sort of organized effort for the future,” Haas said.

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