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Recycling challenges continue to plague Big Sky



By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

LIVINGSTON – After approximately two years of heavy use, the public recycling site located off of Highway 191 may be outgrowing its welcome in an already stressed recycling market, where costs continue to go up.

Situated on property owned by John Haas of Haas Builders approximately one mile south of the intersection with Lone Mountain Trail, the recycling site provided by the Gallatin Solid Waste Management District is beginning to feel the strain of Big Sky’s growth. It’s the only public recycling facility in Big Sky, and Republic Services is currently the only company offering any curbside pickup in the area.

“It’s been working well until recently. It seems like the site is overwhelmed and it’s causing traffic and littering issues,” said GSWMD District Manager Jim Simon, adding that neighboring property owners and the Montana Department of Transportation have expressed concerns regarding access to the site and the potential for litter to blow out onto the highway.

The site is serviced by We Recycle, a facility located at Four Corners that compacts and packages the recycling from multiple counties in southwest Montana before sending it to a materials recovery facility where it’s sorted and prepared for sale to manufacturers who process the recycling and turn it into new products.

According to Simon, cardboard is the largest offender and the five bins fill up very quickly. He also said that sometimes the recycling doesn’t make it into the bins or trash is tossed out next to them. This littering necessitates almost daily cleanup and, during the busy winter season, We Recycle sends a truck to empty the bins about six days a week and sometimes that isn’t enough, Simon added.

While a decision has not yet been made, Simon said the district might have to close down the site, though he’d prefer to find a new location that can either replace or take some of the pressure off the current site.

“It’s just a product of growth in the Big Sky area,” he said. “I don’t want to have to pull the site, but I’m getting pressure to. … It’s very hard in [the Big Sky] area to find a location because space is limited and people want it, but they don’t necessarily want to deal with the problems.”

Prior to the site off of Highway 191, the county had bins in Big Sky Town Center but they were removed in 2015 to make way for construction projects. Simon says it was a challenge securing a new location then, and though sites were considered at Ophir School, the hospital, and the Water and Sewer District, traffic issues were a common problem with each site.

Haas offered his property at the time in the absence of any other recycling options. “I love to recycle and I love to take care of the planet as best I can and this is what I had to offer,” he said. “Haas Builders is happy to do their part.”

Aware that recycling is a valuable option, Simon said it may be time to develop a permanent recycling center in Big Sky, complete with compactors and equipment. “But that needs pavement and power,” he said. “We need to have something long-term and specific to Big Sky. I think as Big Sky develops, that needs to be a part of the conversation.”

The public drop-off sites are subsidized with tipping fees charged at the Logan landfill and the entire county program—which includes approximately 17 sites—costs between $300,000 and $350,000 annually. This pays for the bins and site services, while property owners host the recycling bins for free.

While Big Sky’s growth is pressuring the local system, the worldwide market is in a state of conflict as well.

Glenda Bradshaw, the general manager for Republic Services, said the recycling market has crashed since China stopped taking various types of plastic and paper at the beginning of this year. The move came in response to the high rate of contamination in plastic recyclables, commonly a result of leftover food products.

Material recovery facilities within the U.S. have gotten pickier too, and the competition continues to drive up the prices packaging facilities like We Recycle must pay for disposing of recycling. Republic Services sends their customers’ recycling to We Recycle and must pay a fee to transfer that material. This is reflected in the service fee to customers.

“The cost is so high,” Bradshaw said. “We don’t want to end service to folks, but it’s hard to price our services. We’re forced to make some tough choices given the economy right now.”

She added that the company is working to further define their service area in Big Sky and anticipates that over the coming weeks, they will have to make decisions about which routes are feasible, based on where the actual volume of recycling warrants the cost to dispose of it.

Given the expensive nature of the business, Bradshaw said is it even more important that people are diligent about the way they recycle. She said they commonly find grass clippings, glass bottles, plastic bags and other non-recyclables thrown into the mix of accepted paper, plastic bottles, cardboard and steel or aluminum cans.

Referring to this as “wishful recycling,” Bradshaw said people throw it into the recycling and it seems to disappear but in fact can lead to entire truck loads being thrown away. “It’s so disappointing because we want to recycle those things, but if the load is so contaminated we can’t sort it, we have to send it to the landfill.”

Bradshaw reminds those who recycle to always clean and dry their plastics so that leftover food waste doesn’t lead to mold and unsalvageable material. She also said it’s important to know what can and can’t be recycled.

“If we do those things, it makes it more affordable for everyone and helps us to find a good home for the recycling,” she said.

Speaking about plastic, she said the material is categorized based on its chemical composition and each category is given a number. Plastics No. 1 and No. 2 are made from PETE/PET and HDPE resin and require a different recycling process than No. 3-7, the former of which is somewhat more stable and readily available than the latter. For this reason, the county’s public drop-off bins only accept No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, though Republic is able to accept No. 1-7. Some items, like plastic bags or thin plastic wrappers, aren’t accepted by either facility.

One of the biggest ways consumers can help, Bradshaw said, is to reduce the use of plastic. “There’s a reason recycling is the last of the R’s in reduce, reuse, recycle,” she said.

Visit or to learn more about the Gallatin County’s recycling programs.

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