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


Do you recycle?

In April, we asked you to tell us about your community's waste-diversion efforts.

Of the 261 PUBLIC WORKS readers who responded to our exclusive survey, more than 90% offer recycling programs. Most (26%) have a diversion rate of 11% to 20%.

While 80% of respondents who recycle provide curbside collection and 70% offer drop-off sites, only 25% pick up from apartments and multifamily dwellings. Nearly half (48%) offer curbside collection, a little more than a third (36%) use a source-separated (multiple bin) method, and 29% offer both. (Respondents were able to choose all selections that applied.)

The vast majority of respondents who recycle collect newspaper, aluminum cans, tin cans, cardboard and corrugated containers, No. 1 and 2 plastics, magazines, and office paper. Of the 14% who chose “other,” materials include antifreeze, athletic shoes, batteries, carpet foam, cell phones, computers, cooking oil, metals, paint, pallets, other plastics, propane tanks, and TVs. (114 people answered this question.)

When asked who handles collection, hauling, recycling, processing, and other related tasks, more than half cited municipal crews (56%), nearly two-thirds (63%) said private haulers, and 4% use sheltered workshops. Fourteen percent answered “Other,” listing community nonprofits, private recyclers and material recovery facilities, and county-sponsored events as their labor sources.


Giving back

You can't place a dollar value on providing jobs to those who need them.

By partnering with sheltered workshops, departments can both save money and help the community.

“It gives us an additional income source, and increases the diversity in work opportunities and the number of working hours available for our clients,” explains Cheryl Ohman, executive director of Lakestate Industries Inc. in Escanaba, Mich. The nonprofit organization provides training and job placement to the developmentally disabled and other people who have barriers to employment.

By contracting out sheltered workshop services, Lakestate provides such individuals with opportunities to learn transferable skills. “They earn a paycheck, have the opportunity for social functions, and gain confidence and self-worth by having a job.”

In 1993, Lakestate, which owned a material recovery facility (MRF), began contracting out its processing services to the city of Escanaba in Delta County, Mich. A year later, the organization offered its services to the county's Delta Solid Waste Management Authority (DSWMA), which is responsible for landfilling solid waste.

“Lakestate aggressively pursued the partnership because it meant jobs for their clients,” says DSWMA Manager Don Pyle. It was also a lucrative funding opportunity. Because it was a public-private partnership to establish a recycling program, the authority qualified for a $1 million Clean Michigan Community grant.

The grant enabled the authority to bring in three more partners — two cities within the county and a private hauler — and provide them with recycling trucks, curbside bins, and equipment for curbside collection. Funds were also used to build and equip more drop-off sites and a compost processing site.

The authority also bought and expanded Lakestate's facility, which Lakestate still operates. In 2003 the authority moved recycling operations to the county landfill, making it a one-stop shop for cities and haulers.

Using manual rather than mechanical sorting eliminates the need for capital-intensive equipment. Every morning during the workweek, about 20 to 25 Lakestate employee-clients meet at the Lakestate office and are bussed to the recycling center to work five-hour shifts separating commingled items such as containers, plastic, and paper.

“They're very excited about traveling to work; they consider themselves county employees and part of the community,” says Pyle.

The authority has budgeted $180,000 this year to pay Lakestate for running the recycling center, which includes management, labor, forklift operators, truck loading, and arranging buyers for recyclables. If it were to move operations in-house, Pyle would be hard-pressed to pay a four- to five-person full-time crew with that same budget. “$30,000 per person is not big wages today,” he says.

But whether the authority saves money or not, Pyle says the partnership will continue: “This is a very positive thing for the authority board, because it's good for the community; it's keeping these people employed. I don't think you can put a dollar figure on that.”

Source: PUBLIC WORKS