In mid-August, the Augusta Solid Waste Management District voted to temporarily suspend plastic recycling at the Augusta Transfer station starting Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, 2023.
"When the market dropped out in around 2017, the Augusta site began stockpiling [plastic]. In that time, it's just been — the expense of getting that commodity hauled out was expensive. So we, — the decision to stockpile it and continue baling was made," said Jacki Pierson of Lewis and Clark County Solid Waste and Public Works.
The transfer station is home to dozens of large, and small, bales of plastic collected between 2017 and 2022, weighing well over a combined 10,000 pounds. With a limited market, the suspension is providing an opportunity for the community and Lewis and Clark County to figure out a plan. However, it's not the first time the county is seeing a problem like this.
"Within Lewis and Clark County, or even the state of Montana as a whole, recycling is one of those tough markets. Where you want to try to find sustainable waste recycling efforts to reduce your environmental footprint on what would go into a landfill," said Jenny Chambers, Public Works Director for Lewis and Clark County. the temporary suspension of recycling in Augusta is not unique. There's challenges in Lincoln, they have suspended recycling of plastic as well. In addition, in the city of Helena, what is accepted at the transfer station and what we do with that material."
With no place to send the plastic after it was dropped off by members of the community, Lewis and Clark county knew a surplus of plastic was an option, but they didn't want to suspend the service because of the community's desire to continue recycling.
"The community, again, just very passionate about it. The decision was made to keep to keep it in, keep that commodity coming in, keep baling it, and we just kind of reached a breaking point," said Pierson.
The Augusta Transfer station faces a few problems regarding plastic recycling according to Pierson and Chambers. The space it takes, the number of employees required to prepare it to be sent to market, and the fact that plastic doesn't generate the same kind of revenue as other recyclables are all concerns regarding recycling plastic.
"We have other commodities, cardboard, paper, aluminum, steel cans, those types of things that tend to bring back a little bit more revenue into the system. That whereas plastic is generating zero revenue," said Pierson.
So what's the next step for rural recycling, not just in Augusta but the whole of Lewis and Clark county?
“We're partnering with the city of Helena, to look at an integrated solid waste master plan for the county as a whole, and the city, and that would include all the other communities within Augusta from a county perspective," said Chambers. "Recycling is one of those big elements that are surely going to be evaluated on a county-wide perspective.”
In 2021, the Helena City Commission set goals to reduce waste to landfills by 50% by 2040, and unveiled those plans in June of this year. At this time, Lewis and Clark county and the city of Helena are early on in their discussions for a solution, but the county hopes to continue to provide valuable recycling services to the Augusta community.
"Montana is a rural state. It's a long ways to some markets entity and Helena right now is shipping their material to Salt Lake. That's one of the closest vendors that we have within Montana," said Chambers. "It's not going to be a zero loss gain, there's going to be some costs associated with that moving forward. So balancing community input, public need, and interest and then finding vendors that you can get that product to market."
However, there's still a chance that other services could be impacted, depending on the market for recyclables and what solutions Lewis and Clark county and the City of Helena are able to come up with.
"Solid waste management is not stagnant. You do have to just go with the market changes. You have to evaluate how you're doing operations, and Augusta they have seen a temporary suspension, this suspension of plastic, to give us time to evaluate and look at other alternatives. Moving forward, there could be other operational changes that have to happen, just to ensure that the practices are being sustained and that the services for the community are provided in the long haul."