Recycling may be good for the environment, but for many small and rural municipalities that don"t have access to recycling facilities, it is not a cost-effective option. To divert waste from landfills without going bankrupt, some communities find alternative forms of labor: sheltered workshops and prison inmates. Take the city of Moberly, Mo. (population 13,700), for example.

In the 1990s Moberly owned and operated its own landfill and trash service, but didn"t offer recycling services because the additional manpower needed was too costly. The city had considered charging residents an extra $2/month to start a recycling program, but constituents voted against it.

"They didn"t want to pay," says Thomas Sanders, director of community development/public works.

But in 1997, after spending a year researching options, the city"s solid waste management district launched a recycling program by utilizing the relatively cheap services of sheltered workshops -- for $2,750/month. These nonprofit corporations provide employment opportunities for persons with disabilities who aren"t competitively employable.

The district also applied for, and received, a $100,000 Missouri Department of Natural Resources grant funded by a state tonnage fee collected at landfills. The money was used to pay for electrical service upgrades and installation into the sheltered workshop and purchase conveyors, a skid loader, steel bins, carts, a glass crusher, and a baler.

The city converted its twice-per-week trash collection with unlimited placement to a once-per-week, volume-based fee structure that incorporates curbside recycling for #1 and #2 plastics, cardboard, paper, glass, and aluminum and tin cans. Citizens purchase blue plastic bags for trash at $1/33-gallon bag and 50 cents/13-gallon bag and clear bags for recycling at $3/roll of 10. The initial roll of clear bags was provided to each residence free of charge.

"It"s pay as you go," says Sanders. "So instead of paying a flat fee each month, citizens can regulate their own volumes."

System overload

Because the clear bags are cheaper than the blue, residents have incentive to recycle. Around 90% of homes participate on some level, with around 70% setting out recyclables in any given week. Although other small communities use sheltered workshops with success, the sheer volume of commingled recyclables was overwhelming the sheltered workshop employed by Moberly. Once again, the city began looking for other labor options.

In 1999, Moberly found an alternative in a nearby 1,800-inmate, medium-security prison. In the past, the city had used prison labor to mow cemetery grounds, so why not put inmates to use separating and processing materials for recycling? The prison agreed to send five inmates qualified to work offsite daily, and the city paid $7.50/day for each prison employee.

The city leased a building for $750/month, moved the equipment from the sheltered workshop to the new building, and applied for more grants from the solid waste management district to add equipment and purchase a van to transport the prisoners.

Ten years later, the recycling program is benefiting from this alternative source of labor. "The prisoners do good work, are happy to be offsite, and don't cause problems because they don't want to hurt their chances of parole," says Sanders.

Still, the city takes steps to ensure security and safely, including employing a specially trained supervisor who oversees the prisoners and adding security cameras throughout the building. Measures are also taken to ensure city employees do not develop over-friendly relationships with inmates. This is done by rotating staff members so they are not consistently working alongside prisoners.

So far, the revenues produced have offset the costs of the program. In FY 2008-09, 911,000 pounds of material was recycled, averaging $1,026 revenue each month. Before the market fell, the monthly average was more than $1,800.

In 2005, the city contracted with Veola Environmental Services to close the landfill, provide collection services, and operate a transfer station. Recycling is still done in-house. The landfill tipping fee avoided by recycling is about $40/ton.

The city is currently expanding its recycling operations by inviting other towns to bring their recyclables to the Moberly facility.

Source: American Public Works Association Congress & Exposition
Session: Nontraditional Solid Waste Management Labor Sources
Cynthia M. Mitchell, Director, Social Ventures, Midwest Assistance Program, cmitchell@map-inc.org
Thomas E. Sanders, Director of Community Development/Public Works
Moberly, Missouri
Mon., Sept. 14, 2009
3 - 3:50 p.m.