The future of Polk County’s recycling center — or at least exactly what that future may look like — hangs in the balance this week as its gates remain closed.
The closure came after signs went up this weekend saying the site, just east of Mo. 32 and Rt. D in Bolivar, would no longer be open.
Unanswered questions over its future funding and management are at the core of the closure, according to current manager Robert Meredith and Polk County Presiding Commissioner Shannon Hancock.
On Wednesday, the latter clarified to the BH-FP — despite the actual wording on the sign that read, “funding ends this week” — that funds from the county have not been cut off. Rather, it’s a matter of a requested funding increase, Hancock said.
Meredith, owner and operator of Big Dog Recycling in Halfway, has been on the county’s payroll and at the center’s helm since 2013. On Wednesday, he told the BH-FP he closed the facility this week in order to wrap up before leaving the post at the year’s end — that is, unless the county increases funding for the facility.
Meredith is asking the county to provide him an additional $31,291 to run the center, both he and Hancock said.
Meredith said he provided the county written notice in mid-August of his plans to vacate the post by Jan. 1 if that funding was not made available.
Hancock said the county — with the location and utilities, as well as $10,000 annually since 2016, provided by the City of Bolivar — currently pays Meredith $22,382 to operate the center, in addition to providing some equipment and some fuel.
Meredith wants that amount increased to $53,673, a figure he says would cover his expenses and allow him to make something of a profit.
“But it isn’t going to be huge,” Meredith noted.
Under the current arrangement, which Meredith described as “temporary” from “the word go,” he said he provides staffing for the center and collects, stores, processes and then hauls recyclables — mostly with his own equipment.
While he receives money for the sale of the recyclables, he said it’s not enough to break even. Instead, he said he is “easily” losing around $15,000 a year.
He said the changing nature of the recycling industry is partly to blame, the effect of which is being felt by recycling centers everywhere.
“It’s all changed,” he said. “It’s a different game.”
When he took over the center five years ago, Meredith said, the value of cardboard was around $200 per ton. Today, he said, that same ton of cardboard is valued at around $70.
The same is true for paper, which went from about $100 a ton five years ago to “nothing” today, he said.
“And I have to deliver it,” he added, noting he hauls most of the collected recyclables to Springfield.
Along with other materials, plastic too has been impacted, he said, dropping from 40-cents to 2-cents a pound.
And labor is another factor, Meredith said. He pays one additional full-time employee to help with the preparation, which includes the two-person job of baling, as well as to “guide people to the proper container.”
While many people comply with the sorting requirements, Meredith said monitoring the dropoffs is necessary.
“(People) bring their trash,” he said. “Literally, they put trash bags in my containers full of dirty diapers, old hamburger, maggots, you name it. Literally, that will go in our dumpsters if we don’t stand there and watch them.”
If non-recyclable content makes it into the containers or if a recyclable item ends up in the wrong bin, staff has to remove it or risk the value of the entire batch, he said.
Meredith said the position pays minimum wage, but with the recent passage of an initiative that will raise the minimum wage in Missouri to $12 by 2023, he expects his labor costs to continue to rise.
“And I cannot continue to lose money,” he said.
In the months since Meredith said he notified the commission of his intentions, other possible arrangements for the center were in the works.
Both Hancock and Meredith said they had been hopeful a third party, Burrell, was positioned to take over the center, which could have served as a workforce program for clients with disabilities.
However, that potential arrangement fell through in mid-December, they said.
And as far as Meredith’s financial request is concerned, Hancock told the BH-FP the county “just doesn’t have that extra money.”
While the facility will remain closed for the time being, Hancock said the county is “working to reopen” it.
“We want to see it back open,” he said.
To that end, Hancock said the county may consider alternative arrangements, including taking the center over fully or contracting it out totally.
In both cases, potential grant money could be available, as well, in future years to help defray the center’s costs, he added.
Describing the current arrangement as “complicated,” Hancock said “it would be a lot better if” the county “either contracted it and completely separated ourselves from it, or we just take it over as a county, hire someone full-time, put them on it and that’s what they do.”
The former option, Hancock said, would of course involve the county putting the facility out to public bid.
In the meantime, Hancock said he would also welcome other suggestions, too, from the public.
“We’re looking for options,” Hancock said. “… If somebody has some ideas out there, I’d like to have them.”