Residents in rural East Lewis County want to recycle. But the lack of facilities east of Morton means locals in places like Packwood and Randle must throw their recycling in the trash — or make the long drive to the East Lewis County Transfer Station to drop off their items.
“We have nowhere to recycle cardboard, plastics, paper, anything like that,” said Tracy Croshaw, the co-owner of Packwood Station. “We have a lot of people here in Packwood who are willing to do any clean sorting — we just need somewhere for it go. … A lot of us here still want to be able recycle locally.”
Croshaw and others — especially in Packwood — have been lamenting the lack of recycling service and advocating for a solution. But the answer won’t be simple.
“It’s always been a problem recycling up there,” said Lewis County Solid Waste Services Manager Steve Skinner. “I don’t see it getting any better right away. … It’s not cost-effective to recycle period.”
In the past, East County residents were able to dump their recycling at Ace Hardware in Packwood, where then-owner Lee Grose, a former county commissioner, would collect it and make sure it was transferred appropriately. Since he sold the store, though, there’s been a void, and the difficult recycling market of late has made it difficult to consider expanding.
“This has to be the worst time that anybody would want to start a recycling program, just because the market’s in such chaos,” said Tom Rupert, district manager with LeMay Inc. “You’ve got cities that are looking at stopping recycling.”
LeMay is a private company that has an agreement with the Lewis County Solid Waste Disposal District, a quasi-municipal corporation and taxing district, for its collection services.
As Skinner and Rupert noted, the recycling market has been thrown into turmoil by China’s decision to tighten standards on the recycling it accepts. Two years ago, Rupert said, his company was getting paid $65 a ton for recycling. Now, it’s getting charged $100 a ton — a $165 swing.
That reality is already putting a strain on the system, and Skinner acknowledged that about 40 percent of recycling that’s dropped off at the county’s transfer stations will end up in a landfill anyway — simply because there’s no market for the materials, or it can’t be sorted with enough precision to meet the new standards.
Simply put, recycling is not cost-effective for anyone right now, and servicing rural, far-flung areas would only add to the expense. Skinner said bringing service to East County would require an annual expense somewhere in the five figures, which would result in rate hikes throughout the county.
“You want all the big amenities, don’t move out in the small, rural areas, because you’re not gonna get them,” Skinner said. “Do I want to make all these mom and pops who live in the Twin Cities pay for Packwood? I do not. … I try to run it like a business, because that’s what it is. It’s poor business practice to go out there and spend a lot of money just to make those people happy.”
That doesn’t mean the door is closed on recycling in East County, just that the county’s not prepared to pick up the tab. If a private partner, perhaps a local business, were to take on the responsibility, Skinner said his district could supply them with a dumpster and possibly get a grant to cover hauling costs. The local collector would have to monitor the dumpster and make sure only appropriate items were being dropped off, and it would have to charge a set fee for everyone who brought their recycling.
“We’ll gladly help,” Skinner said. “Somebody up there is gonna have to step forward and want to do something about it.”
According to those in East County, the desire is there.
“People have been clamoring for recycling,” Grose told county commissioner last month. “People will do it if you provide the opportunity to do it. If you don’t provide the opportunity, stuff’s gonna get dumped.”
Jaime Deering, executive director of Destination Packwood, has also been part of discussion on the recycling issue.
“There’s a lot of community spirit that wants to keep Packwood clean and people who want to recycle,” she said.
Croshaw noted that the senior center in Packwood has a program to collect aluminum cans and glass, but those are the only items that can be recycled locally. As Packwood becomes more and more of a tourist destination, locals are hoping that a solution can be found to bring recycling service to the region.
“We know that people come here to see the beauty of the area,” Croshaw said. “It’s really critical that we keep it picked up, and we’d like to have recycling be part of that if possible.”