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Economy takes a toll on waste industry

Matt Robbins recycles his pop cartons and other items each time he visits the South Side Transfer Station in Park Rapids. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

"As the world goes greener, we go leaner," is Vern Massie's mantra these days.

The Hubbard County solid waste administrator presented the board with a bleak picture of a recycling and waste industry hit hard by the economy.

People simply aren't generating much trash anymore, he said.

That's a mixed blessing.

"We've lost some big businesses lately, and with the economy, we're just not generating the waste we used to," Massie said, listing off Pamida, Potlatch Industries and the Teamworks businesses in the Hubbard County region that have either closed or drastically scaled back.

"Grocery stores, their pallets (of merchandise) come in shrink-wrapped," not boxed in cardboard anymore, he added.

It all adds up, or in Massie's case, doesn't.

From 2008 to 2009, garbage was down nearly 500 tons. But compared to 2007, it's down 1,600 tons, Massie said.

"It's quite a drop," he said.

Recyclables were down 400 tons from 2008 to 2009; down 500 tons from 2007.

There have been layoffs at the Southside Transfer Station and Massie hopes to maintain his current staff. But some of his employees are aging and in less than ideal health, he said. He's not sure they will be replaced if business doesn't pick up.

The Developmental Achievement Center, which has a contract to handle the recyclables, has been able to maintain its employee base thanks to supplemental funding.

The Saturday rush at the Transfer Station has slowed considerably, Massie said.

"It's really noticeable when you're out there," he said. "Traffic is really down. People are staying home."

He said it's apparent families are not purchasing pop and juice in the quantities they used to.

"These are now luxuries," he said. Families that used to buy soda by the case now occasionally spring for a six-pack.

" I still drink pop but I've cut down," admitted new Park Rapids resident Jan Jensen, who was recycling and dumping trash Thursday.

So has Matt Robbins, who was recycling his cardboard pop containers and trash. But even though he may be consuming less, Robbins said he still is an avid recycler.

"I stop by here every time I'm in the area," he said.

Massie points to businesses like the American Legion in Park Rapids.

"You drive by there, there's hardly anyone there after 7," he said.

Tougher DWI laws, non-smoking policies and the economy have taken a huge toll on local bars, he said.

And when those bars aren't generating waste, "we're not getting it," he said.

A new program coming out in March, similar to the "Cash for Clunkers" program that generated sales of millions of cars, likely will attract few buyers for appliances, Massie predicts.

It's a program that would reward appliance buyers with a rebate on a new purchase if they take older models out of circulation and recycle them.

"I don't see people jumping on them like they did the cars," he said.

But the most drastic drop has been in demolition waste, Massie said. The construction and remodeling industries have seen very hard times, resulting in a 40 percent drop in demolition recycling.

"I'm glad we didn't open that Akeley site," commissioner Dick Devine said of plans to expand the transfer station east of Park Rapids. Those plans are on hold indefinitely.

And the downturn in homebuilding has also affected the solid waste recycling area of the transfer Station called the "Henrietta Mall" after its street location.

Solid waste attendants used to set furniture, usable appliances and other items outside the office for people to pick up free of charge.

"We've noticed there's not that much to put out," Massie said, "and there's nothing out back to pick from."

Piles of scrap metal and other items on the lower level of the mall have been picked bare; few items are coming in.

Patti Peroni, a Lake Alice resident who was dropping off her recyclables, still believes it's the right way to live.

"I've been recycling since my kids were two," she said.

And how old are those kids now?

She laughed and dodged the question.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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