The landfill wants your corrugated cardboard

Two bales of cardboard sit on top of each other. The two 1500-pound bales were collected in just two weeks from community donations.

You might have seen the announcement or follow-up reminders on Facebook. Or you might have just heard about it from your neighbor after you asked him where they were taking their cardboard.

“Oh, I’m taking it over to the landfill! They’re now accepting corrugated cardboard!”

If you’ve been a long-time Kemmerer resident, you might remember that there used to be a rather robust little recycling program here. Unfortunately, geopolitical and market factors led to a sudden downturn quite several years ago, making unsubsidized recycling unprofitable for all but the most established programs. Part of this sudden downturn stemmed from the sudden and total rejection of most or all recyclables coming from the United States to Chinese recycling plants, immediately choking out recycling programs nationwide that had been operating on razor-thin margins.

Curious about this sudden cardboard phoenix from the ashes rising from the unlikeliest of places, I drove out to the landfill to see what was going on and to learn a little more.If you’ve never been, it’s not too far from town — just a short 5 or 10-minute trip. But be sure to leave your car’s AC intake off and keep those windows closed. It is a landfill, after all.

Once I arrived, I went through the checkpoint and spoke to some of the staff working there, including Jodi Dillree, who appeared to be the main architect behind this pilot program, though her official title was equipment operator.

In asking about the history of recycling in Kemmerer, Dillree explained that they used to actually recycle the whole gauntlet (or most of it): glass, magazines, paper, newspaper, cardboard and aluminum cans. Owing to the aforementioned market nosedive, however, it wasn’t until recently that the landfill was even able to consider starting up the cardboard component again.

“All of the recycling markets are just starting to come back, with aluminum and cardboard starting off,” she said.

“We also recycle antifreeze, oil, tires and all metals,” she said.

But cardboard’s destination is a rather lengthy journey in and of itself. First, it’s baled up, or heavily compressed into manageable cubes of similar size. Once enough bales have been collected out of the waste stream, they call in a semi-truck to haul it down to Salt Lake City. From there, it gets shipped off to dedicated recycling mills in Oregon, who then process the cardboard into the ‘smooth’ types of cardboard we’re familiar with.

In fact, that was also one of the main points that Dillree stressed to me: the difference between corrugated cardboard and the stuff that has already been recycled. Generally speaking, corrugated cardboard refers to the ‘wavy’ kind of cardboard, like Amazon boxes. Conversely, tissue and cereal boxes are not corrugated, and the current program is unable to accept those kinds for recycling.

Moreover, contaminated cardboard, easily identified by the presence of oil, pizza grease, or garbage goo, is also unable to be meaningfully recycled and must be thrown away with regular trash.

But when asked about how much money was really in cardboard recycling, Dillree emphasized the fact that it wasn’t about how much the landfill made, but rather how much is being taken out of the waste stream. As long as it made financial sense for them to bale and ship their cardboard out, it didn’t seem to matter if they were paid a pittance or a princely sum. Dillree also mentioned that cardboard waste was at an all time high, thanks to the dominance of online shopping and the suppressive effect that the pandemic has had. She doesn’t think that’s going to change any time soon, either.

“Our big thing is that we’re getting it out of the waste stream, and it’s not going to go into the ground. We might make $2000 on a whole truckload [of baled cardboard], but our big thing is that it’s not going to go out into the landfill and sit out there forever,” she explained.

Sitting out there forever isn’t just right — it’s the fate of all landfills, which are inevitably doomed to be filled. But by taking recyclables out of the waste stream preemptively, landfills can greatly extend the longevity of their pits, staving off the inevitability of having to dig another lined pit or finding another location. Currently, Dillree estimates that the landfill should last about another ten years or so, depending on any booms or busts in the area’s population.

And with the market being as poor as it is, it’s a small miracle that they’ve managed to start up cardboard recycling once more, even if it is entirely dependent on the efforts of citizens to drop off their cardboard themselves. But despite that, Dillree was more than optimistic about how willing the people of Kemmerer and Diamondville appear to be.

“I collected cardboard for two weeks, and it was 3000 pounds…and that was just people bringing it in. It seems like the community is really responsive and really wants to recycle, because everybody has so much cardboard at home,” she said.

3000 pounds might not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but when it comes to potential savings on garbage disposal fees for cities, that number can quickly add up. Currently, the going rate for household garbage per ton is $75 for Kemmerer and Diamondville. Depending on just how much cardboard residents of both communities currently throw away, it isn’t entirely unrealistic to see a much higher amount (and with it, increased savings) if residents had a more convenient location to recycle their cardboard in town.

Ultimately, however, the decision for both communities to participate will come down to the mayors of both communities. Naturally, the cost/benefit ratio of storing and transporting the cardboard will have to be considered.

“Here’s the thing, they’re bringing it in, no matter what. Either they’re going to pay for it or they’re not,” she said.

Lastly, Dillree emphasized that the even though it’s just a pilot program, she doesn’t foresee it going anywhere for about a year. After that, the program’s total waste reduction and profitability will be assessed. Until then, nearby citizens are invited to bring in their corrugated cardboard for free.

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