Pine County taxpayers are getting their money’s worth when it comes to recycling.

“That dollar is well spent,” said Cheryl Gullickson in an interview Wednesday.

She should know. She is the director of operations for PHASE (Pine Habilitation and Supported Employment) and is in charge of the business side of the recycling program PHASE runs for Pine County. She has 20 years of experience in the recycling industry.

She said, “Coming from out of county and being in the recycling business, I want to say that Pine County’s recycling program is phenomenal.” She said she is not aware of another county that offers the service that we have here. It’s good for residents because the county does not charge them for the program, and residents can drop off materials at any time that fits their schedule at recycling shed and dumpster locations in Rock Creek, Pine City, Hinckley, Sandstone, Finlayson, Rutledge, Bruno and Willow River. The program will also pick up recyclables from businesses and residences for a fee.

The program is good for the end market users as well. Those are the companies purchasing Pine County’s material for recycling.

Tim Schmutzer, executive director of PHASE Industries, said, “They know they’re getting clean product.” Gullickson explained that the material they collect is kept under roof at all times — as it collects in the sheds, is transported to the recycling center, as it is sorted and baled, and when the bales are stored.

“It’s never out in the elements,” she added. The hand sorted, clean material means Gullickson can sell it at higher prices.

Gullickson said, “One of the things that I always am proud of and love to stress is what this job means for the people that we’re serving.” PHASE trains and employs people with disabilities. The goal is for them to one day be competitively employed. The participant employees get paid a wage and become tax paying citizens.

Board member Ron Osladil said the job is also a boost for their self-esteem.

Schmutzer said, “They’re real jobs with job descriptions, training ... they’ve got to perform well just like any person working in a company when they don’t have a disability.” Schmutzer said they could never run the business without the participant employees. He said the recycling program employs 40 plus participant and supervisory employees altogether.

Of course, recycling helps the earth. It keeps material out of landfills, generates less water pollution and saves energy compared to manufacturing with virgin materials. Schmutzer said the PHASE program has seen recycling triple in Pine County since the program began in January 2009. He said they have a good working relationship with the county board and staff and have been able to keep the cost to the county flat for a decade.

But not this last year.

Industry challenges

Even though the program is a win in all those respects, it is not without its challenges.

A huge hurdle is the change in the recycling industry itself.

To encourage recycling, many collectors nation-wide moved to what is known as single sort recycling — all the different types of materials are collected mixed together. Although that model makes it easier for the consumer to recycle, the problem is that the materials become contaminated, to the point where foreign material causes machinery to break down.

Contamination was one of the reasons China banned foreign material for recycling starting in 2018. Prior to that, China was one of the country’s main purchasers of recyclable material. Since the ban went into effect, Gullickson said it has become increasingly difficult to find end users to purchase material PHASE is collecting. And it has caused the value of that material to drop.

Gullickson said, “Many end users have closed their doors.” She said she is seeing the lowest prices of end market users in 15 years.

The market for recyclables changes frequently. Gullickson said she starts calling her contacts when there are nearly enough bales to fill a semi-trailer and sells the bales to the highest bidder. They fill about five semis per month.

Sometimes there is a market for some types of plastics and sometimes there is not. They sort the plastic by type and store it for a while in hopes of finding an end user to purchase it.

“Cardboard is down $90 per ton from last year,” said Gullickson. All the other prices are down as well.

Schmutzer noted that PHASE has several social enterprise programs, the profit of which goes to help fund the recycling effort.

He said PHASE gets asked to donate to organizations, but he said, “We’re a nonprofit. Donations are gladly accepted.”

Garbage

Another challenge for the program is having to remove garbage left in the recycling sheds, or residents bringing items for which they cannot find a market, like Styrofoam.

“There’s no weight to it,” said Gullickson. Since market users pay per unit of weight, it is too costly to have the Styrofoam trucked somewhere.

Gullickson said paying for garbage that has to be sorted, baled and hauled away costs the program about $1,000 per month.

The county is trying to curb the drop-off of garbage by adding supervision to some of the collection sites. A pilot site in Pine City is opening as well as a transfer station in Willow River.

Materials collected

Bringing the right materials to the sheds helps greatly. Currently, PHASE collects the following:

– Aluminum, usually cans

– Steel or ‘tin’ cans and tin/aluminum foil products

– Other metals such as copper, iron, brass, steel, any “scrap” metals

– Glass, all colors of containers

– Paper and cardboard such as newspaper, office paper white or colored, brown paper bags, cardboard boxes, etc.

– Plastics with the recycle symbol labeled #1 through #7, although market users have been found lately only for #1 and #2.

Unacceptable materials

Just as important is a list of what is not accepted at the recycling center:

– NO electronics, including TVs, computers, monitors, etc.

– NO garbage of any kind, including food and diapers

– NO window glass

– NO small or large appliances

– NO Styrofoam, tires, hazardous waste, paint cans, motor oil, etc.

If one has any questions about what is acceptable material, needs to report any issues regarding the recycling sheds or wants to arrange recycling pick-ups, contact PHASE at 320-245-2442. The hours at the recycling center are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Stealing

“We have a lot of aluminum stolen out of our sheds,” said Gullickson.

PHASE used to recycle over 50,000 pounds and now it’s down to 32,000 pounds.

Gullickson said people are getting bolder, taking the entire super sack full of material.

If residents see anyone abusing the sheds or stealing material, they can report the infractions to law enforcement. There are also cameras being installed at the sheds to help identify abusers.

Future of PHASE

Schmutzer said PHASE continues to adapt to the changes brought about by the federal law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed in 2014. They are continuing to get better at integrating the participant employees into the community. The idea is to not have a participant employee’s job at PHASE to be an end-point job, but a stepping stone to competitive employment out in the community.

He said, “Our services are going to look different over the next few years.”

Stay tuned — the organization will be hosting a community engagement session in September.

Schmutzer recalled the cheerful greetings and happy faces of those working when we arrived. He said, “Today, we’re doing our job well.”

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