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City-wide recycling operation unlikely for Bemidji without mandated pickups

Curbside recycling has been a topic of consideration for the Bemidji area over the last few years, but making it a reality would require all residents of the city to have refuse pickup. Without a mandatory refuse pickup model, revenue would be insufficient for a municipal curbside recycling operation.

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A recycling station is available for all Beltrami County residents on 23rd Street NW behind Target in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Curbside recycling in Bemidji's city limits won't happen without a major change in how solid waste operations are conducted.

The city now offers residential refuse pickup for residents, but the service is optional. As a result, Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said only a third of households sign up for the service.

"It's very difficult for anyone to have a recycling operation like that without being able to have curbside refuse pickup as part of it," Mathews said. "That's typically what you'll have. There will be a hauler in the community with a mandatory refuse pickup, and they'll use those profits to have curbside recycling. Curbside recycling by itself doesn't have a lot of profit."

The city offers hauling for residential homes at $16 per month for 65-gallon and 95-gallon trash cans. This operation is limited to residential spaces, though, as the city has a contract with Waste Management for exclusive commercial pickup rights.

"It's kind of tricky," Mathews said. "When you have a community that historically has become accustomed to taking their own garbage to the transfer station, it's hard to have a conversation about mandatory collection."

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According to a study for city officials, there are seven other cities similar to Bemidji's size where residents haul their recyclables. Those cities include Baxter, Cloquet, Grand Rapids, Hutchinson, Park Rapids, Thief River Falls and Winona.

Those communities are in the minority, as the study found 44 similar cities that do have residential recycling pickup operations. Some examples included:

  • Blaine, which has a single contractor and a $12 fee for recycling.
  • Elk River has two contractors and charges a $4.30 fee for recycling.
  • Moorhead has a city-run operation and a $4.47 fee for recycling.
  • Monticello has a single contractor and a $2.26 fee for recycling.
  • St. Joseph has a single contractor and different fees. The city has a $15.20 fee for a 60 gallon recycling cart and $21 for 90 gallon carts.

"A larger financial analysis and projection needs to be run if the city council were to want to implement recycling in town," Mathews said. "If we were to have every house in town, it would mean more trucks and staff. In that scenario, we could cash flow a second run to take recycling. However, the recycling commodities market is not very good, and the county also has an incineration tonnage required with their contract."

County operations breakdown

Currently, all of Beltrami County residents can bring their recycling to several locations. Those sites include:

  • The Bemidji Solid Waste Transfer Station at 751 Industrial Drive SE.
  • The site behind Target in Bemidji on 23rd Street NW.
  • The Ten Lake Rural Site at 23170 Power Dam Road NE in Bemidji
  • The site at Tom's Spot at 8000 Irvine Ave. NW in Bemidji.
  • The Blackduck Transfer Station at 33003 U.S. Highway 72, NE.
  • The Fourtown Rural Site at 68030 State Highway 89 NW in Grygla.
  • The Island Lake Site at 8530 Lumberjack Road NW in Puposky.
  • Waskish Rural Site at 56162 Waskish Road NE.

"We cover Beltrami County fairly well, but we also know we have a gap up by Turtle River," said Brian Olson, Beltrami County Solid Waste director. "That's our next biggest concern, as we try to cover all of the citizens in the county. Once we're able to do that we would like to put another site there."

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Battery recycling bins were recently added at the recycling station on 23rd Street NW behind Target in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Country transfer stations

The two transfer stations have been under the county's operation since 2017. That year, the county finalized a purchase, buying the two transfer stations from Waste Management for $1.85 million.

Since buying the facilities, several upgrades were made to the buildings, as they needed to have a 20-year-lifespan to receive state funding assistance. Remodeling the stations came to $3.8 million.

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At its sites, along with plastic and glass, Olson said the county accepts organics, batteries, tires, E-waste and hazardous waste. After collection, the county's recycling is then sent to Polk County, which has a station to sort the recycling items.

"Once its sorted, the recycling is sold," Olson said. "The proceeds from that are then provided to each of the counties in the coalition and helps administer the operations of that facility."

Along with Beltrami and Polk, other counties partnering to use the recycling facility are Clearwater, Mahnomen and Norman.

County officials acknowledge that while most residents have access to recycling sites, though, there is some interest in pickups. However, County Administrator Tom Barry noted the same hurdle to get over that Mathews did.

"I think for some people who live in town, they'd not like to take it in as much and like the convenience of having it hauled off," Barry said. "It's extraordinarily unlikely that you can launch a recycling program without mandatory collection. In my experience, working with public works for the last 20 years, and on a lot of recycling programs, you just can't get a hauler that's going to agree if they don't have a captured audience for those costs."

"With solid waste, everything gets stuck on dollars," Olson said. "We get $134,000 from the state annually. We spend a little over $1 million on recycling already and there's not much revenue in this for us."

According to Olson, when recycling is made easier to do, residents are more likely to participate in. However, haulers of recycling are looking for a monetary guarantee.

"For them to do that, they have to make sure it's worth their time and effort," he said. "Plus, the infrastructure and staff has to be covered."

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Beltrami County accepts items such as paper and cardboard, glass, some plastics, and aluminum and steel cans at recycling stations. After collection, the county's recycling is then sent to Polk County, which has a station to sort the recycling items. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Cooperation between city and county

While mandatory pickup doesn't exist now in Bemidji, Olson said that kind of model, or something similar, may be needed in the future.

"At some point, it may have to change," Olson said. "We get 600 to 900 cars per day at some points of the year at our transfer station in Bemidji. At some point, our population will outgrow that facility and we'll have to come up with a different approach."

In Barry's view, any changes to solid waste operations must include recycling as a key component.

"The reality is if we're going to manage our solid waste in a sustainable way, recycling has to be part of that, because landfills are growing," Barry said. "I think the city's on the right path in trying to find a cost-neutral way to enhance the services and increase recycling to meet better sustainable goals. That makes sense and we'd love to be part of that. I think they're struggling with the mandatory issue, though, and I think that will continue to be the big issue."

Barry said any action done on the issue will have to include both government bodies.

"What the county does impacts the city and what the city does impacts the county," Barry said. "I think the county is very interested in expanding the partnership with the city and finding a way to move toward a sustainably conscious and cost conscious approach."

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