ASHLAND – Consultant Jim Skora spent about an hour and a half at an Ashland County Commissioners’ meeting Thursday presenting and fielding questions about his company’s draft of a feasibility study on the county’s recycling options.
Skora, manager of GT Environmental, said his firm’s study focused mainly on the financial implications of changing operations at the Ashland County Recycling Center versus maintaining the status quo.
The study also took into consideration the need for compliance with Ohio Environmental Protection Agency regulations and the impact any changes might have on the city of Ashland, Ashland University and other entities that rely on the county’s recycling services.
Skora emphasized the importance of the city of Ashland’s curbside recycling program to the county’s Recycling Center and Solid Waste District. He advised county leaders to avoid disrupting the city service in any way that would reduce recycling.
Skora did suggest the commissioners consider encouraging the city to shift to a “Pay As You Dump” model. With Pay As You Dump, residents would have an incentive to recycle as their trash bills would be figured based on how much they throw away.
For the past 30 years or so, the state has required counties to have solid waste districts for the purpose of diverting garbage from landfills, which were quickly running out of space at the time, Skora said.
Historically, the Ashland County Solid Waste District and Ashland County Recycling Center have worked in tandem. The pair of entities receive a majority of their money from the sale of recyclable materials and from fees businesses or municipalities pay when they take trash to landfills.
According to EPA rules, the county must either provide sufficient access to recycling opportunities to 90 percent of resident or ensure that 25 percent of residential waste and 66 percent of industrial waste is recycled.
Currently, Ashland County is compliant under the percentage rule, but Skora recommended county leaders consider shifting to comply with the access rule instead. That would allow the county to “control its own destiny,” he said, because it can more easily control the access it provides than the actions of private individuals and businesses.
After studying the finance and compliance issues, Skora presented the county commissioners with two broad options, each of which includes additional choices the county leaders could make.
Option 1: Convert to a transfer station
Option one would be to change the operations at the Ashland County Recycling Center, likely by converting the Ashland County Recycling Center from a processing facility (where recyclables are sorted) to a transfer facility (where materials are collected and then sold to brokers prior to sorting). This would reduce both revenue and expenses.
If the county would choose this option, Skora said it would need to continue to provide residents and businesses with access to drop-off services to stay in compliance with the law. Drop off services could be contracted out, or the county could continue to provide the service in-house through its solid waste district.
Skora suggested the county could save money by ceasing its collection of special materials, such as electronic waste and tires. The county is required to have a strategy for the recycling of those materials, but its strategy could be to advertise outside opportunities for residents and businesses to recycle those items rather than to actually provide the service.
Option 2: Maintain the recycling center
Option two would be to maintain operations at the recycling center as they are, providing both drop off services and processing of recyclable materials.
Skora cautioned that one risk of this option is the volatility of the market for recyclable commodities. He noted that while markets were down in 2018, experts are optimistic they will improve.
As a cost-saving suggestion, Skora suggested reducing the number of hours the recycling center is open or the number of hours employees work.
Skora also said the county could save money if commissioners chose not to replace recycling center director Alex Brady, who resigned shortly after the commissioners hired GT Environmental to conduct the study.
Ashland University Director of Building Services Director Peggy Kohler expressed concern about the potential impact of changes in the county’s recycling operations on the university’s recycling program.
“We could be looking at financial implications, and potentially reducing our student employment because the recycling department is 100 percent student run,” she said. “What type of timeline are we looking at for a decision to be made, and will you give us adequate warning so we can make the necessary changes within our operations?”
Commissioners president Jim Justice said commissioners have set no timeline for the decision-making process but will provide ample warning before implementing any changes.
Dennis Bole of Ashland Pump said his company, too, is concerned about potential changes. The company relies heavily on the county recycling center to collect and process its cardboard.
Commissioner Denny Bittle said he intends to reach out to local businesses and other users of the center before making any final decisions. He described what he expects to be a “long, slow process” that could take the remainder of the year.
“There may be no changes. There may be a lot of changes,” he said. “We don’t know.”
Jerry Martin, a part-time driver for the county’s recycling center, asked whether he should be looking for a new job.
Again, commissioners said they are not yet prepared to make a decision and do not know when they will be ready.
Justice said he expects the county will seek bids from private recycling companies to get a better idea of potential costs before making final plans.
Ashland County an outlier
If there was one thing attendees of Thursday’s meeting agreed on, it was that Ashland County is fairly unique in its recycling operations.
Bittle said Ashland County has one of the highest tipping fees in the state, meaning entities that take trash to landfills pay more when the trash comes from Ashland County. That additional cost is passed on to the generators of the waste, either residential customers or businesses, Bittle said.
In response, Kohler argued the tipping fee is worth it because it diverts materials away from landfills.
Dan Scott, a retired former director of the county’s recycling center and solid waste district, referred to Ashland County’s as a special recycling program because of the services it offers. For example, he said, Ashland was one of the first counties to start collecting electronic waste and tires year-round.
Paul Osad, Vice President of Sales at Recycleit, works with the Ashland County Recycling Center as one of its brokers. He agreed that Ashland’s center is a standout.
“I work with a number of recycling facilities across the country,” Osad said. “Ashland has one of the most unique facilities because it’s run by its own people, it maintains its own equipment and it does a great job with separation… These guys have done a great job, and I wish I could put this plant in other areas across the country because of what they’ve done.”
Osad also cautioned against the option to convert the center to a transfer station that would for co-mingled recyclable materials.
“I think the risk is more than the reward right now, because the co-mingled market is hurting across the country,” he said. “There are thousands of tons of co-mingled materials that are sitting, waiting for a home, and a lot of it is being shuffled right into landfills.”
A copy of the entire Recycling Study Draft can be downloaded below.