Launch Slideshow

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Keeping green in the black

Keeping green in the black

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    From left: Raymond Scott and Graham Lawrence separate cardboard at STEPS Inc.'s recycling center in Farmville, Va. As employee-clients of the sheltered workshop, they receive job training, integration into a real-world work environment, and a steady paycheck. Photo: STEPS Inc.

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    Using prison inmates for grounds and road work is old hat for some public agencies. So why not use inmates as cheap labor to sort recyclables as well?

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    In Escanaba, Mich., sheltered workshop employee-clients work five-hour shifts at the Delta Solid Waste Management Authority recycling center, separating commingled items such as containers, plastic, and paper. “They're very proud of what they do, and the job is getting done,” says Don Pyle, manager of the authority. Photo: Don Pyle

Budgets are thin, the market for recycled material is down, and residents don't want to pay more for services. Meanwhile, environmental issues remain at the forefront of public discussion. So what's a cash-strapped operation to do when considering a recycling program?

In addition to equipment and facility costs, there's labor to consider — which could be a deal-breaker considering most municipalities are being forced to down-size. To divert waste from landfills without going bankrupt, some operations turn to alternative forms of labor.

Take Virginia's Prince Edward County, for example.

The rural county has a population of 22,000, with about 7,000 people residing within the town of Farmville. The town offers curbside recycling; the county operates seven “convenience centers” where residents drop off waste and recyclables. Both contract with a local sheltered workshop, Farmville-based STEPS Inc., to process, market, sell, and transport recyclables.

Sheltered workshops are nonprofit employment service organizations for people with severe disabilities (i.e., mental retardation, mental illness, head injury, seizure disorder, blindness, deafness, and physical disabilities), as well as for those who are chronically unemployed or on welfare. The organizations put such individuals to work at companies that need manufacturing, processing, janitorial, or other entry-level services. Participants get experience working in a real-world work environment that may, ideally, enable them to move into the mainstream workforce; customers generate revenue that saves their state — and taxpayers — the expense of providing alternate day care options.

Jonathan Pickett, director of planning with Prince Edward County, says the nature of the sheltered workshop is one reason why the county partnered with STEPS back in 1993. “It benefits the county by providing employment to disabled citizens. The county board of supervisors has always felt that this was a very important organization in the community.”

Another significant factor for a public customer: sheltered workshops provide the facility as well.

STEPS saves the county a great deal of fuel and time by providing a convenient, local facility for sorting and separation of recyclables. “The closest urban areas [with recycling processing centers] are 50 miles away,” explains Pickett.

Because workers with developmental disabilities have less sophisticated skill capabilities — and slower rates of output — than workers who are competitively employable, some sheltered workshops set wages based on productivity. However, the eight people who work at the STEPS recycling center receive at least the state minimum wage of $7.25/hour. Even with this slightly higher labor cost, “we‘re committed to keeping our fees low,” says STEPS CEO Sharon Harrup, “We see this as job training, not a way to make a profit.”

The operation serves two counties and one town, and last year recycled 272 tons of cardboard, 111 tons newspaper, and 47 tons plastic, plus 3 tons steel/bi-metal cans, and 2 tons aluminum cans. At $17/ton to separate paper and cardboard and 28 cents/pound for plastic, STEPS charged Prince Edward County $13,000 last year.

“Having STEPS take care of the processing and marketing is a big benefit to the county. All we have to do is collect the materials and drop them off,” says Pickett. “If STEPS didn't exist, we'd have to look for our own markets.”

In the Midwest, Moberly, Mo., began using a sheltered workshop in 1997 to initiate recycling without raising rates. To cover additional labor costs, the city proposed charging an extra $2/month. Residents voted against it.

“They didn't want to pay,” Community Development/Public Works Director Thomas Sanders told attendees of last year's American Public Works Association's annual convention. But he didn't take no for an answer. After spending a year researching options, he enlisted the services of a sheltered workshop for $2,750/month.

To turn the workshop's facility into a recycling center, he applied for a $100,000 Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grant funded by a state tonnage fee collected at landfills. In addition to upgrading the facility's electrical service, he used the money to buy conveyors, a skid loader, steel bins, carts, a glass crusher, and a baler.

The city's solid waste management district converted its twice-per-week trash collection schedule 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. Blue plastic bags are for trash: $1 for a 33-gallon bag and 50 cents for a 13-gallon bag; clear bags are for recycling: $3/roll of 10. “It's pay as you go,” said Sanders. “So instead of paying a flat fee each month, citizens can regulate their own volumes.”

Each residence got its first roll of plastic bags for free, as incentive to recycle. It worked: Around 90% of homes participate on some level, with around 70% setting out recyclables in any given week.

Working with correctional institutions

Soon, the volume of commingled recyclables overwhelmed the sheltered workshop's capacity. So once again, Sanders explored his options.

In 1999, he found an alternative in a local 1,800-inmate, medium-security prison. The city had used inmates to mow cemetery grounds, so why not have them separate and process refuse? The prison agreed to send five inmates qualified to work offsite daily, charging $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 another grant, this time from the DNR's Solid Waste Management District, to buy more equipment and a van to transport the inmates.

A decade later, the program is thriving. “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,” said Sanders.

Even so, he took steps to ensure the security and safety of his team, hiring a specially trained supervisor to oversee the inmates and installing security cameras throughout the building. To ensure they don't develop over-friendly relationships with inmates, city employees are rotated so they're not consistently working alongside the same inmates.

So far, revenues from sales of recyclable material have offset program costs. In 2008-09, the city recycled 911,000 pounds, averaging $1,026 in revenue each month. Before the global recyclables market fell in 2008, the monthly average was more than $1,800. The landfill tipping fee avoided by recycling is about $40/ton.

Back in Virginia, nearly 90 miles southeast of Prince Edward County, the Danville Public Works Department's recycling center also exists thanks to a partnership with a local prison. “If we couldn't use inmates, I wouldn't have been able to open the center,” says Sanitation Director Thomas Spicer. “We would have continued hauling to landfills.”

The city has employed inmates throughout his 26-year tenure for such job details as litter and yard waste pickup. “We use them anywhere we can, as long as they won't have contact with the public and don't require a gun guard,” he says.

So when the department opened its recycling center in December 2008, using inmates to offset labor costs was a no-brainer.

The department would have to pay each full-time public services employee a starting salary of $9.55/hour to sort recyclables, which include mixed paper and commingled plastics. Four employees would be needed to do the work, amounting to $79,456 annually. An inmate is $1 a day. At less than $1,500 a year, the department can employ four inmates to work 7- to 7.5-hour shifts, five days a week.

Last year, the operation realized $50,000 in combined revenue and cost avoidance by diverting 42% of material from landfills. Without the inmates, that income would have been a $30,000 deficit. Plus, in Danville, solid waste collection is not tax-supported. Instead, users pay a flat monthly fee. The recycling revenue ensures that residents won't face a fee increase, says Spicer.

Initially, the program's biggest challenge was turnover: “We were getting different inmates each day, and it takes a day to train them,” Spicer says.

The center only employs prisoners convicted of misdemeanors, not felonies. However, it took a few months to convince correctional officers to release the same group of inmates each day. Spicer had to guarantee that the inmates would have no contact with the outside world; they're only allowed to speak to each other and their supervisor. Inmates are picked up and dropped off by public services staff; because the recycling center and public works yard is located on the same property as the detention center, they don't come in contact with private vehicles during transit.

The results were worth the negotiations. Spicer describes his center as low-tech, but able to crank out a lot of tonnage. He believes any community with detention facilities nearby could tap into an unlimited supply of cheap labor.

“Those facilities are probably overcrowded, so you have lots of labor. It's just a matter of working with the corrections officers and making sure your employees understand that they may work with inmates,” he says. Candidates for jobs with the public works department are told this in the interview process, and most are trained to work with inmates. “And if inmates are a few months from their release, they won't want to do anything to foul up their release date.”


Web Extra

Composting increases, curbside recycling decreases

  • In 2008, Americans generated 250 million tons of trash; of that amount, 83 million tons were recycled and composted.
  • This means the average American recycles and/or composts 1.5 of the 4.5 pounds of trash he/she generates every day.
  • This 33.2% recycling rate is the equivalent of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 182 million metric tons.
  • There were 8,660 curbside recycling programs in 2008, down from 8,875 in 2002.
  • But there were 3,510 community composting programs, an increase from 3,227 in 2002.
  • For more facts and figures, visit here.