A proposed recycling contract in Grand Forks has been months in the making, but an area business owner hoped for more time to offer an alternative.
City Council members are set to vote on Monday on a new contract with Waste Management, Inc., a Houston-based company that collects recyclable trash from cities across the country. The city has been paying the company to handle recycling services in Grand Forks since 2003, and the new contract would be more or less an extension of the status quo: residential recycling fees and service would stay put, the cost for apartment and small business service would reduce incrementally, and the cost to the city for the “drop sites” it has across town would be reduced by about 6.4%.
If council members approve the new contract next week, it would kick in on Jan. 1, 2022. City Hall administrators plan to budget about $860,000 for it that year, a 3.1% increase over this year’s figure that City Administrator Todd Feland said is the result of anticipated population growth. A city phone survey and an online one indicate that 62% and 69% of Grand Forks residents approve of the city’s current recycling program, respectively.
“I think people are satisfied with the current service level,” Feland said.
It’s the result of a lengthy research effort city staff began in mid-2020.
In October of that year, they recommended the city re-up its existing contract with Waste Management through 2021 so city administrators could speak to recycling companies and consider broader trends in the industry, such as the increasing value of some recycled materials or the Chinese government’s “national sword” policy, enacted in 2018, that bans shipments to the country of recyclables “contaminated” with regular trash, as well as lower-quality recyclables. The country had imported those materials for decades, and the new policy disrupted recycling in the United States, where “single stream” recycling, in which commingled recyclables of varying quality are sorted further down the supply chain, is increasingly popular.
That, plus the COVID-19 pandemic and a then-new mayor, prompted city staff to ask for the extension, Feland said. City administrators even considered ending curbside recycling altogether in favor of drop sites.
“There were many doubts, even before the pandemic, just with international markets,” Feland told the Herald. “Then you top that off with the pandemic, there were conversations: is it really worth it to do it?”
A different idea
Waste Management is one of two companies that tried to win the city recycling contract. The other is Countrywide Sanitation, a Grand Forks-based firm founded in 2008 that handles recycling and garbage collection for several other cities in the Grand Cities region, such as East Grand Forks.
The company’s owner, Rachel Gornowicz, proposed a gated facility -- the “Grand Forks Evergreen Center” -- to which existing city garbage trucks could haul recycling. The center would be owned by Countrywide, which would charge the city to use the center, then sell the collected recycling and split the profits with the city, she explained.
“They already have established routes, they already have the labor, they have the trucks to do this already, and I believe it would have been something to really take a look at and to see what type of cost savings they can save the city by doing that,” Gornowicz said. “Instead of paying somebody else to pick it up, they could do it themselves.”
City administrators published a formal request for recycling proposals on May 26, 2021 and set a June 24 deadline. Gornowicz asked on June 2 that the city push the deadline back 60 days “due to the complexity of the detailed bid and not knowing what the scope of the work with the Grand Forks Air Force Base is.” The city extended the deadline to June 30.
Countrywide ultimately submitted a proposal that offered price quotes for dropoff sites and shared revenue that would have presumably come from the Evergreen Center, but not for curbside recycling service. Gornowicz told the Herald she needed more time to have an architect draw up plans for the center, which she felt could have been completed by early 2022, and for Countrywide to buy the trucks and receptacles it would need if the city opted to use that company for curbside service anyway.
But Feland said Gornowicz and Countrywide offered a service for which the city didn’t ask.
“That particular service ... was not seen as a service level that we wanted to take a deeper study of,” Feland said. “It wasn’t something we were doing nor had it come up as an alternative to look at deeper.”
If City Council members approve the contract with Waste Management on Monday, it will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022, and last through 2026.