Elk County Recycling: From service to business

Photo by Yelena Kisler – A part-time staff member sweeps the floor at the end of his long shift in the recycling center. The stacks of compacted recyclables along the wall get stored there until the center accumulates enough to send the shipment out to a processing facility.Photo by Yelena Kisler – Bekki Titchner and Dave Stubber check out the flames inside the Elk County Recycling Center's high power wood stove. The stove, which burns wood chips, heats the entire facility.
Yelena Kisler
Staff Writer

It is no doubt that the Elk County Recycling Center offers a valuable service to the community, but few realize how far this program has come since its humble beginnings at the Stackpole Complex.

The move to their current Washington Street facility has created new challenges that thanks to foresight, dedication and community support, the staff are overcoming them one at a time.

"The first year we operated, calendar year 2011, we processed 127 tons of material, and we thought that was a lot. This year we're probably going to hit 1,000 tons," said Recycling/Solid Waste Coordinator Bekki Titchner. "And we really, we don't have much more staff than we did back then."

Daily Operations

On days the center is open, like Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Solid Waste Enforcement Officer Dave Stubber usually starts at 7 a.m. with the full-time staff and volunteers joining him by 10 when the Center opens to the public.

That’s when the public comes with their recycling, and the volunteers and staff unload their cars. That appears to go almost nonstop throughout the day, with the automatic doors opening and closing to see yet another car lined up to drop off their goods.

“We do get some business deliveries on those days, so that means that either Dave or one of the volunteers that is certified in driving the forklift will unload the commercial recycling,” said Titchner. “From ten until two, it's usually been really busy on those days.”

However the majority of the commercial deliveries come in on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

"We try to steer [businesses] towards the days we're not open [to the public],” said Stubber. "It doesn't always work."

The two part time employees, Dave Kerner and Tom Meyer, “they just work continuously," said Titcher, "from the moment they come in at 7 a.m. ‘till the time they leave at two. There's that much material to go though." But this is a good problem and the upgrades that the Washington Street facility has does allow the Center staff to reach plateaus in terms of handling the materials.

Services to Profits

The Recycling Center is mostly self-sustaining, generating enough in profits to cover their costs, and has been since before their move to Washington Street.

After realizing that they were taking in more materials than the Stackpole Complex could handle, the Authority began to look for ways to fund a new facility.

Thanks to a clause in the 2000 PA Going Green law, the Authority could access money in a special account that otherwise couldn’t be used for anything for the next 50 to 100 years. The funds from that account, along with additional money from their own fundraisers, were used to purchase the Washington Street facility through the County.

Aside from the cost of the building, everything else - employee salaries, utility bills, equipment maintenance and upgrades - is paid from the profits generated by the influx of materials to the Center.

In the 2016-2017 calendar year, 53.85 percent of the Center's income came from the sale of cardboard alone, 12.85 percent came from paper and another 12 from plastics. This means that just these three commodities account for 78.7 percent of their income for last year. The companies largest expense for the past year, at 37 percent, was for the purchase of equipment. Only 15 percent was spent on labor, 11 percent on utilities, and about 12 percent on repair and maintenance. The amount of money the center takes in varies greatly from year to year, month to month, even sometimes week to week. Because commodity prices change just as quickly and frequently as the stock market, it’s hard to say for certain exactly how much money each type of material makes the Center.

“It depends on the market,” said Stubber. “The market goes up and down with what's going on in the world.”

The Center works with several different brokers who help to distribute the materials for the best prices.

“The brokers,” said Titchner, “know that the materials they get from Elk County are clean and well sorted, so we have really good relationships with at least three brokers for fiber and plastic, because of how we collect some of it, it goes to a specific place in Ohio.”

The benefit of going through a broker as opposed to sending materials directly to a mill is that if there is something wrong with a bail or entire shipment, the Recycling center doesn't have to pay trucking fees and it is handled by the broker instead.

They have never had a rejected load yet, said Stubber. "One bad bail could reject the entire load,” he said.

"There are some markets we have not tapped into and at this point, we're not going there," Titchner. “We need to make certain when we're bailing something that we don't have more labor costs into it that what we're going to get for it.”

With that mindset, Titchner and the other Center staff look to keep expenses minimal while getting the most they can out of the materials they take in to build a sustainable future for the Recycling Program. “We have to make sure that we maintain at least a small margin of profit. This year's been good for us, but who know's what's going to happen next year,” she said.

Looking to the future

Now that the Center is running smoothly and generating profit, the staff and Authority are looking to the future. "[The profit] is not a lot," said Meyers, "but our head's above water, we're not losing money."

“We're getting to the point now where we have to start looking at this more and more as a business and not just a service,” said Titchner.

In the coming year, the Center and its staff want to increase operations, market their business and educate the community as much as possible.

“People have good intentions and they want to be able to recycle all these things and so they bring them to us,” said Titchner.  

"They think if it's plastic, I can recycle it," said Meyers, "but we can't we have to throw it out if its not in the criteria."

Because the facility needs to remain sustainable, they have a consultant the have worked with for a since the very beginning, Michele Nestor of Nestor Resources.

“She actually suggested that we could open a community recycling center, she thought we had the wherewithal to do that, and she was correct,” said Titchner.

Now Nestor is working with the Authority going ahead to do a full business plan, try to market themselves, enter into contracts, “just do those types of things that will protect us, protect our customers and hopefully this whole endeavor sustainable,” Titchner said. “We just received approval from DEP for a planning grant that will focus on marketing, business development, and performance standards. That will be our focus in 2018."

For the full story, see the FINANCIAL section of today's print edition.