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Helena aims to reduce garbage by 50% by 2040
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Helena aims to reduce garbage by 50% by 2040

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Helena City Garbage Truck

A Helena garbage truck empties a dumpster on Hibbard Way. The Helena City Commission approved a resolution establishing goals to reduce the amount of solid waste transferred from within its borders to the Lewis and Clark County Landfill by 50% by 2040, with an interim goal of 35% reduction by 2030.

After failing to meet previously set goals for waste reduction, the city of Helena is once again aiming high.

During its Feb. 22 meeting, the Helena City Commission approved a resolution establishing goals to reduce the amount of solid waste transferred from within its borders to the Lewis and Clark County Landfill by 50% by 2040, with an interim goal of 35% reduction by 2030.

The resolution goes on to state the goals are "not intended to be final goals for the City, and the City Commission will revisit these goals every 5 years, starting in 2027."

The resolution was crafted by the city's Citizen Conservation Board in consultation with Helena Sustainability Coordinator Patrick Judge, other city staff members, county staff and the Scratchgravel Solid Waste District Board of Directors. Citizen Conservation Board members also hosted four public forums on the topic.

"Waste management is an area within the subhead of conservation that is really within the purview of local governments," Citizen Conservation Board waste committee co-chair Ann Brodsky told the City Commission. "... the goal would be to have less waste being directed to the landfill as the least conservation-minded approach to dealing with waste management, and that likely will result in and require looking at ways to accomplish these things on a budgetary basis."

The resolution further calls for the creation of a strategic plan for waste reduction to be conducted by a third-party consultant, and the CCB intends to ask the city to allocate $60,000 in its next budget cycle to pay for the planning.

Brodsky said she envisions the strategic plan, to be completed by June 30, 2022, "would include cost-benefit analyses of different ways of achieving waste reduction in Helena," "the most preferable being refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, compost and finally landfill."

Part of the planning process would also include a waste audit, a baseline analysis of what and how much is currently going into the landfill.

But one man's trash is a local government revenue stream, and the public works directors of both the county and city cautioned the commissioners about the financial impact to the overall system should the city succeed in its goals of waste reduction.

"You tweak one thing, and the whole thing gets thrown out of whack," Lewis and Clark County's Public Works Director Eric Griffin said during the public comment period. "We have to look at the big picture. We just can't look at part of it."

Griffin said per ton assessments at the landfill have only increased less than $4 in nearly 20 years.

"We have some of the cheapest rates in the state," he said.

Both Griffin and Helena Public Works Director Ryan Leland said their two departments are presently budgeting for a solid waste master plan that would take into consideration not only the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also the impact such measures would have on other aspects of the system, particularly the tipping fees residents must fork over to use the transfer site.

"So we just need to work with our partners to make sure we come up with an appropriate diversion rate that is fiscally responsible and is not undercutting the county and the county is on board with," Leland said.

Denise Barber, the Helena Citizens' Council representative on the CCB, called this facet of the issue a "Catch-22."

"After all of these months of conversation, the big elephant in the room has been if we reduce our waste stream, the city, the county is going to lose money because it relies on money through the fees to pay for the operation," Barber said. "And that is now something in 2021 we need to address, and we can no longer operate with that premise that we need garbage in order to pay for our system."

Barber said while the approved strategic plan the resolution proposed will be separate from the city and county's solid waste master plan, it will not be in contrast with it. "It would be a component of all the various work that's going to happen in how to manage our waste stream," she said.

In 2009, the City Commission approved a Climate Action Plan that called for the diversion of 35% of solid waste from the landfill by 2020. According to Judge, the city's current diversion rate sits at about 20%.

Further complicating the matter, Lewis and Clark County opened a bid process for phase 4a of its landfill expansion project on Feb. 25. The Lewis and Clark County Board of County Commissioners will consider awarding the nearly $1.24 million contract for the work to Bullock Contracting LLC, during its Thursday morning meeting.

The solid waste diversion resolution passed as presented on a 3-1 vote, with City Commissioner Sean Logan the lone nay vote.

"At the transfer site, revenue is based on tonnage that comes into it," Logan said. "And so as that's reduced, the fixed costs or the solid waste management system stay the same, so how does that impact tipping fees and other assessments that are going to impact the general public."

Fellow City Commissioner Emily Dean applauded the resolution and CCB's efforts in crafting it.

"I'm very grateful to everyone in the community who has been a part of this," Dean said. "This is a great step that we're taking, and I'm excited about where we can be in nine and 20 years."

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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