Montanans are routinely recycling paper, cans and plastic, composting fall leaves and Christmas trees and more recently salvaging electronics, including cellphones.
But hundreds of tons of the stuff still gets tossed.
“Here, we’re used to just loading up the truck and taking it to the landfill,” said veteran recycler Erik Little, who has opened a major recycling plant just east of Laurel. “I want Montana to get to where you have some of the volume that you have in larger cities.”
Little has fixed up an abandoned and vandalized former meat-packing plant in East Laurel and hired 10 people to capture some of the discards that are forgotten in current recycling — everything from old mattresses to clothing and shoes.
“Last month, I think we went through about 300,000 pounds. We salvaged all but 300 pounds, or below 1 percent, and that’s all that goes into the landfill,” he said.
Little calls his two-year-old business, Collective Recyclers, the only comprehensive recycler in Montana, although it is joining a growing list of local companies that recycle. His motto is: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink."
A white board at the entrance to the cavernous 15,000-square-foot plant sets a minimum weekly goal of 35,000 pounds of textiles, 2,500 pounds of shoes, 10,000 pounds of bric-a-brac and 3,750 pounds of books for a total of 51,250 pounds per week.
Employees pick up truckloads of goods that don’t sell, mostly from thrift stores from across Montana, haul the materials to Laurel where they are sorted and then trucked to larger recyclers in California, Oregon or Washington.
Little, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Germany, has worked in the industry for 20 years in the U.S. and in Europe, Asia and South and Central America. After moving his family to Montana, he tried to work with Pacific Recycling in Billings, but that business didn’t have the space to handle textiles.
In 2011, Little opened a recycling center in Bridger, but it was too far from Interstate 90 to be trucker-friendly. So this spring he moved up to the Laurel plant off of South Frontage Road. He hopes to expand into Wyoming and North and South Dakota.
“He’s doing a really good job. Hopefully, it lasts,” said Pacific’s Recycling’s Billings manger Marshall Knick. “I was shocked at the amount of clothing and shoes he’s collecting.”
Pacific Recycling is one of Montana’s largest recyclers and is building a major facility with a rail spur in Lockwood that should be operational by next fall.
Both Pacific and Collective Recyclers started recycling electronics, or e-waste, this year. But the local pioneers are Brandon and Kolbi Fox, who six years ago started Yellowstone E-Waste Solutions at 15 N. 15th St.
Their company only ships to West Coast recyclers who safely handle discarded computers and cellphones, Brandon Fox said, adding that Third World countries don’t protect workers or the land.
“China and Africa workers just pull out the gold and copper because they are starved for precious metals,” he said.
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After eating ramen noodles for the first two years, Yellowstone E-Waste is profitable; loading a semi-truck headed for the West Coast every week and a half.
In September, the city of Billings set up an e-waste container at the landfill to help feed electronic waste to Yellowstone E-Waste.
“Our free program takes e-waste from Billings residents only. It’s about 50,000 pounds per month,” Kolbi Fox said, and is added to collections at their Billings store.
The couple credits city of Billings recycling specialist Barb Butler and Sandra Boggs, who works in recycling at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in Helena, with helping them survive their first few years. Because electronic recycling was new to this area, no one took them seriously and no banker would look at their business plan, Kolbi Fox said.
Now they have a track record.
“We recycled half-a-million pounds last year and this year we’re on track to hit 1 million pounds,” Brandon Fox said.
During economic downturns, people buy less, so fewer goods are recycled. But this industry hasn’t slowed down in Montana, according to Boggs at the DEQ.
“They are really demanding it,” she said. “People are even willing to pay for this service.”
Schnitzer Steel of Billings, formerly Golden Steel & Recycling, has been recycling in Billings since 1991.
Instead of separating items into different containers, Allied Waste Services of Billings now accepts unsorted waste from single Dumpsters at Billings Clinic locations. The mélange is shipped to Seattle, where it is sorted and recycled. As much as 45 percent of the total waste stream comes from commercial and industrial sites, according to Billings Clinic vice president Mitch Goplen, who said streamlining recycling was “environmentally the right thing to do.”
The Billings area has one company, Earth First Aid, that picks up recyclables at the curb.
Habits can change.
Taking a new job as warehouse supervisor at Collective’s plant in Laurel has changed LeeAnn Fusco.
“I never recycled until I got here and saw how much waste would end up in the trash,” Fusco said.