With the first full year of Mitchell’s new recycling program in the books, city officials are gauging its effectiveness and finding areas to improve.

When the city of Mitchell ushered in its new single-stream recycling program a year ago, increasing participation to reduce unnecessary garbage ending up at the landfill and providing a more efficient service were the primary goals. While participation levels among residential recyclers saw a significant increase in 2020 under the city’s single-stream program — which is a recycling method that entails a single truck transporting items to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where sorting occurs for the items to be sold into various commodity streams — commercial recycling decreased.

For Public Works Director Kyle Croce, who spearheaded the city’s recycling program after many Mitchell residents were experiencing a growing number of issues with the previous sanitation company, the switch to single-stream has been an overall success thus far. However, he pointed to the commercial side of the recycling program as an area in need of improvement.

“I think it’s been really good for the first year, and I'd say it’s been successful. We’ve had nowhere near the complaints about the operations and the process than in previous years,” Croce said. “The single-stream system allowing more materials to be recycled has made a big difference in residential recycling with the increase we’ve seen. It’s also shown us some things we could improve on, and that’s how we will make this program better serve the entire community.”

Mitchell moved to the format on Jan. 1, 2020, contracting with Millennium Recycling, of Sioux Falls, which is where the city hauls all recyclable materials collected in Mitchell. The change also allowed additional items to be recycled compared to previous years, such as colored bottles and various types of cardboard. Perhaps the most effective change is the much-larger 64- and 96-gallon rolling containers, which gave residents the ability to place all permitted recyclable items together in the bin, provided they are empty and rinsed. Each single-family dwelling is charged a $4 monthly recycling fee, regardless of whether residents participate.

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In 2020, Croce said the city collected a little over 800 tons of recyclable materials, combining residential and commercial recycling. Of that, roughly 600 tons was collected from residential recyclers, marking a 200 ton increase from the yearly average of 400 tons spanning over the past decade.

However, the city's commercial recycling accounted for 200 tons this past year, roughly 600 less than the yearly average that spanned over the same 10-year time frame. But that excludes the tonnage picked up from private sanitation companies. Although the city offers commercial recycling services for large big box retail stores, manufacturers and apartment complexes, to name a few, the city looked to private sanitation companies to take on the bulk of commercial recycling.

Before the city switched its recycling program and did away with Dependable Sanitation, the Aberdeen-based company was previously contracted to collect and haul both commercial and residential recycling for the past 14 years, the yearly average of recyclable materials collected in Mitchell hovered around 1,100 tons throughout that time frame. At Miedema Sanitation alone, the Mitchell company hauled roughly 200 tons of recyclables to the city’s facility, bringing the total tonnage combined with the city’s to 1,000.

Mitchell-based Petrik Sanitation is another private company that collected commercial recycling over the past year, but representatives were unable to respond prior to this story publishing. For Mitchell to meet its previous yearly average of roughly 1,100 tons, Petrik would have needed to collect 100 tons of commercial recyclable materials.

“We did not collect a lot of commercial right away with a new change in the program, but we are hopeful it will continue to grow for the private haulers. Miedema and Petrik both have took on commercial recycling, which is what we hoped to see,” Croce said. “Our goal is to haul around 2,400 tons in the future.”

The dip in commercial recycling tonnage was a factor that went into Council member Steve Rice’s decision to cast the lone vote against the city’s single-stream program a year ago.

“What if the private haulers aren't equipped to handle all of the commercial recycling? That means we would have more recycled material ending back up at the landfill," Rice said during the July 15 council meeting. "With this program, the city is saying we don’t have to take any of the commercial accounts."

Private sanitation businesses rise to occasion

While getting into the commercial recycling business wasn’t exactly part of Jeff Miedema’s plan, the owner of MIedema Sanitation has been up for the challenge.

Shortly after the city announced its plan to roll out the new recycling program, Miedema began offering some recycling services for commercial businesses. Prior to the city’s switch to single-stream, Dependable Sanitation picked up commercial recycling free of charge since the company sold the recyclables around the country as a commodity.

“It’s actually been going really well. I was concerned because all of the previous years under Dependable Sanitation, no commercial business had to pay for recycling because they were selling the commodity,” Miedema said. “So we have to charge the customers since we don’t sell it for commodities. For our first year, I thought we did real well, and I’m seeing it’s starting to grow.”

Since the roll out of the commercial recycling, Miedema has grown his customer base. The local sanitation company serves roughly 75 commercial accounts in the Mitchell area. At Miedema’s 1805 S. Rowley St. facility, there are three large dumpsters set up for recycling drop offs similar to the city’s at the West Eighth Avenue compost site.

Miedema has found a creative way to encourage recycling at the commercial level with his “recycler of the month” awards that he announces on the company’s social media page. To provide a better picture on how much recyclables are collected, Miedema said the Highland Mall in Mitchell recycles roughly 1.5 tons each month. Looking ahead, Miedema said he’s exploring ways to encourage commercial businesses, especially bars and restaurants, to separate glass bottles from the rest of the recyclables for better efficiency.

“The commercial recycling has been well received by our customers. It’s been great working with the commercial customers, and I’m hoping to talk to the bars and restaurants and see if they could separate their whiskey and beer bottles because they weigh a lot,” Miedema said.

Investing in efficiency

For the rollout of the recycling program, it cost the city roughly $1 million. Included in the costs was a new automatic recycling truck, the recycling bins and refurbishing the sorting facility in southeast Mitchell. The city also moved three city garbage hauler employees and dedicated them to the recycling program, avoiding the addition of new employees, which Croce said has been a sufficient staff to meet the demands.

According to Street and Sanitation Supervisor Kevin Roth, Mitchell hauls about 11 tons per load to Millennium twice a week, costing roughly $400 per load to dump its recycled items in Sioux Falls as part of the city’s contract, equating to roughly $96,000 for the full year. After the recyclables are collected by the city, they are then sorted at the recycling facility prior to being transported to Millennium's Sioux Falls facility. Under the previous recycling system with Dependable Sanitation, the city contracted the company to collect all of Mitchell’s recycling at an annual cost of $285,000.

Thanks to state grant funding, the city’s overhead costs of rolling out the recycling program was cut by over half the amount. Immediately after implementing the program in early January 2020, the city received a $663,000 grant through the Solid Waste Management Program that’s administered by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DENR), helping cover 50% of the start up costs.

“With the large volume of complaints and issues that residents had with the previous recycling system that ranged from the hauler not taking a large assortment of recyclable materials or having such limited space in the container, the costs of bringing a better, more efficient program to the city is worth it,” Croce said.

Education is key

While recycling participation at the residential level has grown in the first year of the city’s program, commercial recycling hasn’t experienced the same rate of participation. To increase commercial recycling, Croce said education is key.

Perhaps the most vital entities to boost participation are local schools and college institutions, Croce said. But it’s been one of the biggest challenges since the program was ushered in, as Croce noted the Mitchell School District and Dakota Wesleyan University have yet to join the city recycling program.

“I’m really disappointed in the schools not participating,” Croce said. “It starts with education, and when you think about all the recycled materials that are disposed of at schools it could be a large volume. All of that staying out of the landfill is vital for the future of it.”

When the Mitchell City Council was deliberating the recycling revamp, a pair of Dakota Wesleyan University professors spoke in support of the city’s single-stream proposal during the meeting. However, Croce said there has yet to be any movement from the local college since. With both the Mitchell School District and DWU currently not participating in the recycling program, Croce said John Paul II Elementary is the lone local school to join.

“We sent out posters and advertisements when we rolled out the program showing what materials can and can’t be recycled, but we still see a fair amount of non-recyclables that our guys have to sort out before taking it to Millennium. That’s where education comes in and could help avoid that,” Croce said, noting Styrofoam and certain types of plastics like fruit cups are common non-recyclable items that people are unaware of.

Educating the community on the impact recycling has to the city’s landfill is another goal for Croce moving forward. The city landfill is 14 years into its 130-year life expectancy. However, that dwindles when recyclable items that are disposed of in regular trash cans end up at the landfill and not at recycling facilities. Considering the high costs and challenges of finding land to construct a new landfill, Croce said recycling is a “simple and effective” way to extend its use.

As the city is in the process of building its fourth cell at the landfill, a project that costs $1.6 million, Croce said it’s one example to show the hefty costs of landfill operations and the effect of recyclables. Landfill cells are designated areas of land the city uses to compact the garbage that’s dumped at the landfill, and the city calculates the landfill's life expectancy through measuring the height of each cell.

“The more everyone recycles, the longer our landfill lasts,” Croce said. “It is forward thinking for future generations.”

Miedema echoed the importance of education in regards to the impact recycling has on the landfill, which Miedema and other private collectors pay the city to haul their waste.

“We need more education on it all, and I think that could really be effective at schools,” Miedema said. “Prior to this new recycling program, we didn’t recycle much in our house. But this has definitely helped make it a consistent habit in our home.”