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The list of things people around Helena can keep out of the waste stream is about to enter the electronic era.

The city Solid Waste Transfer Station is set to begin a monthly collection of electronic waste — computers, extension cords, microwave ovens, rechargeable batteries, televisions and a long line of electric appliances.

The station is also enabling others to collect textiles (like old clothes) and ink cartridges.

That will help keep tons of material — including harmful substances like lead from old televisions — out of the county landfill.

Unlike some items that can actually command a price, like aluminum cans or scrap metal, properly disposing of electronics works the opposite way. While some items will be free to recycle, other products will cost from 25 cents to $50 to drop off.

“It’s a pretty detailed list,” said city Solid Waste Supervisor Pete Anderson.

The city is coordinating with Yellowstone E-Waste in Billings, which will come once a month to pick up the electronics from two large gray containers that already sit near the transfer station entrance.

Starting possibly in January, the waste will be accepted on the third Wednesday of each month from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Also fresh at the transfer station is a textile and clothing drop off. That’s being operated by Helena Industries, which gets so much clothing it cannot sell that it owns its own baler, squeezing clothes into giant bricks and shipping them off for recycling.

The drop-off at the transfer station also welcomes items like shoes, belts and purses; Helena Industries will extract items it can put onto its thrift store shelves before baling the textiles.

Also at the site, Cartridge World has set up a container for printer ink cartridges.

In those cases, the transfer station simply provides the space for the recycling bins where people already do much of their regular recycling. The transfer station also accepts motor oil and antifreeze; aluminum and steel cans; corrugated cardboard; newspaper, magazines and office paper; telephone books (in their own separate bin); scrap metal; motor vehicle batteries; refrigerators and air conditioners; yard waste; and more.

By about Christmas, the transfer station should have two more off-site locations for the collection of recyclables — in the former Dillard’s parking lot on the east end of the Capital Hill Mall, and in Dale Harris Park, near the south end of Cruse Avenue.

There are some things the transfer station does not recycle.

Paperboard — that thin cardboard that makes things like cereal boxes — generally cannot be recycled with either the corrugated cardboard or the newspaper. It needs to be thrown out.

Nor does it take regular household batteries, although the rechargeable kind will be able to go with the electronic waste.

Waste managers are in an endless battle to educate the public and recycle only what’s actually recyclable, and to sort appropriately or risk rendering worthless an entire batch. That means no aluminum cat food cans, no plastic bags around newspapers.

“We constantly have a problem of contamination,” said Anderson. “It’s really important that everybody does their part.”

Still no plastic

The transfer station off Benton Avenue near Carroll College does not take plastics. But the SAVE Foundation takes Type 1 and 2 plastics (generally, clear beverage bottles and colored containers like white milk jugs or detergent bottles) at its drives every other month, the next coming Jan. 13-16. This year, the group recycled about 100,000 pounds of plastic.

The price paid for old plastics is low, and processing it — especially sorting it into the major categories — is labor-intensive. Among other chores, lids have to be removed.

SAVE Executive Director Matt Elsaesser, also a Helena city commissioner, said partnerships with the city, the state, City-County Sanitation, Pacific Steel and Recycling, the Montana Beverage Association, the state, A-1 Rental and Carroll College — along with plenty of volunteers — make plastic recycling possible.

Pacific Steel and Recycling bales the plastic for its return into the manufacturing cycle.

Helena Recycling, which provides curbside home and business recycling to about 400 customers, takes all seven kinds of plastic.

Sherrel Rhys, Lewis and Clark County solid waste manager, said various ideas for recycling plastics are being explored, but none have yet become clear options. From the view of the landfill, plastic takes up lot of space for its weight and is an inefficient use of landfill space.

Rhys’ main personal peeve are plastic bags (unless filled, tied or otherwise properly disposed of), especially when the wind blows.

Glass on the streets

Glass also has such low value that it’s difficult to make recycling cost-effective, and it’s a harmless substance in landfills. But, Rhys notes, people want to recycle glass, and local governments are responding. Locally, some goes to Ash Grove Cement, while much of the excess goes through a pulverizer, which wipes out all the sharp edges and can make a sand or gravel-textured material called cullet, with many potential uses.

The city water department took 88 tons for bedding in its operations, Anderson said, and since last winter, it’s being mixed with sand for application onto city roads. It doesn’t damage windshields, Rhys said, and it reflects light off the road surface.

But it costs about $30 a ton to make the cullet, which is more than the cost to put it in the landfill, and a lot more than the cost of regular gravel.

“It’s a wonderful product, but it’s not an inexpensive product,” Rhys said.

The 10-year-old mobile pulverizer is owned by Headwaters Cooperative Recycling, a Helena-based nonprofit operating mostly in rural areas.

The total budget for the city’s recycling program is about $516,000 for fiscal year 2012, said City Manager Ron Alles. But that cost is offset by about $55,000 received for the recycled materials as well as many benefits that are much harder to measure, including the reduced landfill and transportation costs, the longer life of the landfill, the availability in the marketplace of numerous materials, and environmental benefits.

Despite the expense, “the general policy is for us to expand our recycling programs, and we’re working to do that,” Alles said.

Reaching Pacific

Other than the glass and plastic, most of the recycling from the transfer station and elsewhere eventually reaches Pacific Steel and Recycling, where the serious sorting and baling takes place, followed by loading onto rail cars. A steady stream of trucks circle through the scales, dropping loads — construction waste, old culverts from Jefferson County, cans and cardboard from various recyclers.

This is where aluminum from the city and elsewhere is sorted to keep it pure. Manager Eric Meredith carries a small magnet on his key ring to help quickly separate ferrous and nonferrous metals.

Metals are the mainstay of Pacific’s business, its facility is filled with giant piles of sorted and semi-sorted metal — rusty cables, bales of extension cords, aluminum irrigation pipe, engine parts. The company, whose corporate name is Pacific Hide and Fur, still takes elk and deer hides while also recycling titanium shavings from Boeing Helena.

The facility also has a new “fluid rack” for easy draining of fluid from recycled motor vehicles.

The company conducts various special collections, including electronic waste drives, and works with the numerous public and private entities that have waste.

“Everyone lends a hand, and without everyone lending a hand, I don’t know that it would work,” Meredith said.

The company also cuts to order steel products made at mills that receive its scrap, so customers can drop off waste and pick up new building materials at the same site.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani:

447-4086 or sanjay.

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