>Recycling to Reduce: Bismarck’s Options to Save Landfill Space

>     Over the past decade, Bismarck has made significant advances in energy efficiency: we use wood waste to heat public works facilities that process waste; the airport uses a geothermal system; and waste water is converted into natural gas and fertilizer. The natural gas is reused in the process, while the fertilizer is used on crop land for a ten-mile radius around the city (Eckroth, City officials). There is, however, one major item that remains to be resolved, and that separates Bismarck from other major cities in the nation: landfill sustainability. The Bismarck landfill is a finite space for storing all of our household waste – the constant flow of garbage that urban planners refer to as the “municipal solid waste” (MSW) stream. Considering the rise in the city’s population over the past few years due to economy-driven migration, and Bismarck’s willingness to contract waste containment for outlying towns such as Linton, the size of our landfill is a matter that should be given every consideration. The problem with the landfill is that if it becomes full, the city will have to expand it, or find a location to create a second landfill; either of these solutions would be an unnecessary waste of land and taxpayers’ money, and nobody wants a new garbage dump in their backyard. This means that siting and building a new dump takes years, sometimes more than a decade, as people fight it tooth and nail.

     The ideal solution is to enact more legislation and programs that not only reduce the volume of refuse in the landfill, but to prevent that trash from going there in the first place. That way, in the face of growing demand, we can keep the landfill at lower than full capacity for decades to come. We need to ensure that the Bismarck landfill remains our sole garbage dump, and this can be accomplished through the joint use of curbside recycling and volume-based garbage collection fees, and by examining the possibility of expanding the recycling capabilities that are currently available to all of North Dakota.

     Bismarck already has a recycling solution in effect; there are eighteen recycling trailers placed throughout the city where people can take their recyclables, and twenty-two yard waste collection trailers where people can get rid of their grass clippings, leaves, and garden trimmings. According to the City of Bismarck’s 2010 Recycling Trailer Map, “[i]tems that may be recycled are aluminum beverage cans and tin cans, corrugated cardboard . . . newspapers, telephone books and plastics. Plastics that will be accepted include plastics that have the recycling symbol #1 thru #7.” (1) The biggest problem with this is that the recycling trailers represent a passive solution. Residents must go to the nearest trailer, which may be quite far from their homes, in order to recycle. For some residents who do not own a vehicle or are unable to drive, the farther away the trailer is, the less likely it is that they will take the effort to recycle, especially in the winter. Some residents will not want to take the extra time to make a trip to the recycling trailer and will throw everything away instead.

     The method of collection that people find most convenient is curbside recycling, which is not a new concept for Bismarck. The city tried a test program for curbside recycling in the 1990s on one-third of the city, and at the end of the test they decided to use the recycling trailers instead; at the time, the amount of recyclable material being collected was too low to warrant the cost of curbside recycling. About fifteen years later, Jeff Heintz, the Director of Service Operations for Bismarck, says that “a survey [conducted in January of 2010] showed that less than half the people recycle.” (Eckroth, Relooking) He also says “that by creating a curb-side recycling program, the city could increase the practice by 40 percent. In four years, it may leave 1.2 million more cubic square feet of air space in our landfill.” (Eckroth, City wants) An immediate start in curbside recycling could cut down considerably on a household’s garbage output, as plastic and metal containers move from the trash can to the recycle bin, along with newspapers, magazines, and cardboard.

     The city of Grand Forks has a curbside recycling, a program that was enacted while they were trying to find a site for a second landfill, as theirs was nearing maximum capacity. In a 2008 letter to the Bismarck Tribune’s editor, executive director of the North Dakota Solid Waste and Recycling Association Angela Boeshans writes, “[t]he city of Grand Forks has been trying to locate and build a new landfill for more than 12 years” (Boeshans). In 2005, the Associated Press indicates that Grand Forks’ curbside recycling program was beginning to see “an increase in the number of residents who [were] recycling” (Grand Forks). Grand Forks’ curbside recycling program is currently contracted through Waste Management. According to Waste Management’s website, they use “the latest sorting technologies . . . [including] single-stream recycling, which allows . . . residents to put all their recyclables into one bin. These programs can help increase recycling participation by as much as 30%” (Waste management). The best way for Bismarck to implement curbside recycling would be to contract it through Waste Management, paying one bill and letting them sort out the cost components.

     The reduction in the volume of garbage produced by a household through recycling becomes instrumental in the “pay-as-you-throw” (PAYT) program. This is a volume-based pricing option that would distribute garbage collection fees more fairly among households. In PAYT, the city would allow each household to select one of three sizes of garbage bins, based on the amount of trash they think they will put out each week, and the cost of their garbage collection will be based upon the size of that bin – i.e., the smallest bin has the lowest cost associated with it, and the largest bin carries the highest cost; there would be the option to switch sizes, if a family’s needs change. If a household needs to get rid of more garbage than they can fit into their can in a week, that garbage would have to be marked with a special tag that would cost a few dollars; this tag tells the garbage men that the trash collection for that bag has been paid for and they can take it away. Rather than being like a tax, this option brings the pricing method for garbage collection more in line with other consumer services that are less transparent, such as wireless telephone service; we pay for a limited amount of service (in this case, garbage collection,) and if we need more, then we must pay extra for it.

     PAYT is not a new concept; according to the Associated Press, “[f]our North Dakota cities – Devils Lake, Drayton, Pembina and Wahpeton – have volume-based garbage fees. Fargo is preparing to switch to a volume-based fee system, also known as pay-as-you-throw” (State’s Goal). The PAYT program, if implemented alongside curbside recycling, would be a viable incentive for families to both cut down on their household waste and encourage recycling to reduce costs; these are the major factors in keeping the Bismarck landfill’s growth rate sustainable. In a survey conducted early this year by the Bismarck City Commission, little more than a third of the households whose surveys were returned opposed the idea of curbside recycling. Less than a third – twenty-nine percent – didn’t know what a “pay as you throw” program was. “[T]he survey’s comment section was popular. Many felt the capital city should lead by example and use the system . . . others felt the tags would be confusing and inconvenient.” (Eckroth, Bismarck) While getting used to a new system can undoubtedly be confusing and inconvenient for some who have become comfortable with the existing system, it appears as though the majority of Bismarck’s population is ready to assist the city in making it a greener place.

     What happens to the bottles and cans that come out of our trash? They aren’t magically converted into new goods, or reused as they are; the plastic is separated by type and shredded, while the steel and aluminum cans are destined to be melted down and shaped into raw metal stock. Old paper and cardboard get turned into new paper and cardboard. There is a market for recyclable materials – a way for the city to sell them; this brings up the subject of cost, because nothing is free.

     “The city’s passive recycling program now generates about $138,000 a year from reusable products. Cost of operating recycle trailers and dumpsters is $265,000” (Eckroth, City wants). In other words, the city recovers over half of the money spent to maintain the recycling program currently in place; an expanded program will certainly change that balance, but we must also consider the money that is saved through waste management. How much has the city saved via the airport’s geothermal system, the natural gas reclaimed from raw sewage, and the wood waste used to heat the waste processing facilities? While it costs money to recycle, a majority of that cost can be offset by both selling the byproducts of waste reclamation and recycling, and by using money-saving green technologies that not only help us save money and energy, but also help keep our landscape beautiful.

     If there is an element of Bismarck’s fledgling recycling program that comes close to being as inconvenient as the lack of curbside pickup, it is the amount of material that is yet unable to be recycled. These items include paper cartons and glass containers, which must be thrown away if there is no other use for them. They represent a significant portion of the MSW stream; in order to further reduce the volume of landfilled waste, these options will have to be seriously considered.

     Paper cartons – not counting those made of corrugated cardboard, which are already recyclable if not contaminated with grease – represent a significant volume, if not a significant mass, of household waste. In fact, to call the contribution paper cartons make to the MSW stream “significant” is an understatement; these are the boxes that contain our cereal, soap, pasta, oatmeal, popcorn, tea, over-the-counter medicines, and adhesive bandages. They are the waxed cartons that dispense our milk and orange juice, our most expensive soups and our cheapest wines. According to a recent news article, a pilot program in Florence Township, New Jersey “managed to recycle over 2,000 pounds of cartons a month”, with an expectation of “recycling two million pounds of cartons over the course of a year” county-wide(South Jersey Local News).

     The problem with paper cartons used to be that some of them are coated with wax, and some of them contain around twenty percent plastic. This used to make them difficult, if not practically impossible to recycle, but that isn’t the case anymore. Whether or not they can be recycled now depends on a city’s capability to recycle them, so it’s understandable why Bismarck can not start recycling all paper cartons right away; however, this ought to be an issue for future deliberation on removing material from the MSW stream.

     Another source of currently non-recyclable material in the MSW stream consists of glass containers. Americans generated 12.2 million tons of glass in 2008, but only 23 percent of it was recycled. The largest contributor to all of this glass is containers – those used for soda, alcohol, and food (EPA). The real shame about this is that it costs less to recycle glass than it does to make new glass, both in terms of the energy it takes to melt down the material and the extended life of the furnaces used to do so. The less energy used means that less carbon emissions are produced, which is environmentally responsible. According to the EPA, “Ninety percent of recycled glass is used to make new containers, and the demand for quality [crushed glass] is greater than the supply.” So why doesn’t Bismarck accept glass for recycling?

     According to the North Dakota Solid Waste & Recycling Association, “[g]lass in North Dakota is generally not used to make new glass due to the distance to most glass manufacturers and the relatively low value of the commodity.” Is it possible that the value is low because the demand in North Dakota is low, and is it possible that demand is low because the supply in North Dakota is also low? It is, in fact, entirely plausible that a new supply stream of glass cullet (the crushed glass that is used to make new glass) can help bring the glassmaking industry to North Dakota, a state known for its pride in homegrown business and crafts. A high demand would mean a tidy profit to help offset the cost of collecting and processing the glass; but the real value is in the fact that recycling glass will cut down immensely on the volume of waste generated in the home.

     Another way to encourage glass recycling, not to mention recycling in general, involves “container deposit laws.” Put simply, these laws would raise the cost of a bottled beverage (most states’ bottle laws only regard carbonated beverages, i.e. soda and beer) by five or ten cents. The consumer gets this money back by returning the container to any store that sells the same product. For example, someone who buys a case of soda in Michigan must pay $2.40 (24 x 10¢) extra for deposit. For each can or bottle they return to a store, they receive the ten cents back. The manufacturer’s driver picks up the collected containers every time they deliver new product, and then the manufacturer recycles them into brand new containers, saving 40-95% of the energy it takes to make the containers from virgin materials. This process “provides a monetary incentive for the public to return their containers for recycling . . . [and] also provide an incentive to the manufacturers to encourage recycling, as they get some money [from] the bottles that are returned . . . states that have [container deposit laws] have higher recovery rates”. Take California, for example: since creating its container deposit legislation in 1986, the state has reached a bottle recycling rate of 85 percent (Fox, 52). Michigan, the state with the highest bottle deposit on carbonated beverages at ten cents, has an impressive overall redemption rate of 96.9 percent (Container Recycling Institute).

     Bottle deposit laws not only encourage recycling through a financial incentive, but they prevent litter. Instead of being thrown in the gutter, soda cans and bottles get taken back to the store; even if one does get thrown in the street, someone will come by and pick that container up just to get the nickel or dime from it. Bottle deposit laws create jobs for people who handle, sort, and process recyclable materials. They encourage consumers and beverage producers to be responsible for the waste they generate, and most of all they complement curbside recycling in the effort to cut down on the consumption of landfill space.

     It can be argued that considering the relatively small population of North Dakota compared to other states (searching for “population of North Dakota” and “population of Michigan” on Google shows that by comparison, North Dakota’s population is 6.5 percent of Michigan’s population,) the recycling program can be expected to be just as small. But to those who care about North Dakota and the sheer beauty of the landscape, recycling is a very big deal, and an acceptable way to reduce the size of our garbage dumps. Curbside recycling, along with a “pay-as-you-throw” price scale for garbage collection, is the best method currently available for reducing the volume of trash going to the landfill and making it sustainable, thereby preventing the need for an extra landfill. Examining the options for adding on more recycling capability in the future, such as glass and carton recycling, will allow Bismarck to scale to the growing population in the coming decades and to further reduce solid waste. A bottle deposit law would provide a high level of incentive for people to recycle their bottles and cans. It may take time, money, and education to get everyone on board, but there is no doubt that the time has come for public recycling programs, not just for Bismarck’s sake, but for all of North Dakota. These improvements in recycling will help the landfill by reducing the river of garbage going into it to a trickle that can be easily managed at one dump.


Associated Press. “Grand Forks curbside recycling program picks up.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 06 Feb. 2005. Web. 09 Dec. 2010

—. “State’s goal of reducing solid waste was not met.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 20 Apr. 2008. Web. 09 Dec. 2010.

Boeshans, Angela. “Recycling just plain sensible.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 13 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 Dec. 2010.

City of Bismarck. Recycling Trailer Map. Bismarck: City of Bismarck, 2010. Web. http://www.bismarck.org/DocumentView.aspx?DID=2434

Container Recycling Institute. “The Michigan Deposit Law.” BottleBill.org. Container Recycling Institute, 31 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. http://www.bottlebill.org/legislation/usa/michigan.htm

Eckroth, LeAnn. “Bismarck City Commission accepts survey results on trash.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

—. “City officials recap ‘green’ efforts.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 01 Oct. 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.

—. “City wants to boost recycling.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 07 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.

—. “Relooking at recycling.” The Bismarck Tribune. The Bismarck Tribune, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.

Environmental Protection Agency. “Glass.” EPA.gov. Environmental Protection Agency, 01 Dec. 2010. Web. 02 Dec. 2010. http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/glass.htm

Fox, Michael. “CASH FOR Trash.” Earth Island Journal 25.1 (2010): 49-52. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

North Dakota Solid Waste & Recycling Association. Glass Recycling. Bismarck: North Dakota Solid Waste & Recycling Association, 2010. Pamphlet.

South Jersey Local News. “Curbsite paper cart recycling goes county-wide.” South Jersey Local News. South Jersey Local News, 02 Dec. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. http://www.southjerseylocalnews.com/articles/2010/12/02/community_news/news/doc4cf7f57ba6fdb282004660.prt

Waste Management. “Curbside Recycling Pickup.” Wm.com. Waste Management, 2010. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. http://www.wm.com/enterprise/municipalities/residential-solutions/recycling-pickup.jsp

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