Three years ago, Sundance’s city council made a bold decision to require all of its residents to recycle household items.
Each house received a blue bag for everything from water bottles to newspapers to be placed on the curb each week. A truck from Gillette came by to collect.
Bills went up $4.35 per month and residents grumbled, but everyone knew the stakes.
“The council’s idea was if we could pay for it up front and get it out of our garbage, we wouldn’t have to increase rates later,” said Kathy Lenz, Sundance’s clerk and treasurer.
And it worked. The town has reduced its garbage by 50 percent, and less garbage means lower bills.
Sundance is one of dozens of Wyoming towns facing landfill closures due to potential groundwater contamination. It was the first of many to realize that even if recycling didn’t pay for itself, it was cheaper than the alternative.
“Anything they divert locally, they miss a tipping fee on the other end,” said Craig McOmie, recycling coordinator with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “We will see a lot of changes in the next five or so years.”
No one thought Wyoming landfills would leak toxins into the ground. The state was too arid, that was a problem for rainy places like the Pacific Northwest or New England. But then eight years ago, the state started testing landfills, McOmie said.
More than 90 percent of the landfills tested were leaking significant amounts of toxins into the ground, tests showed. So Wyoming DEQ gave most cities and counties an option: line the landfills to prevent leakage, or close and cap them and start shipping garbage to an approved facility.
Lining a small landfill is expensive. Capping, closing and building a transfer station is also expensive, but the state is offering grants to pay for up to 75 percent of those costs, he said.
Cities like Casper and Laramie chose to line their landfills, while cities like Sundance and Rawlins chose to cap and close theirs.
Casper receives waste now from seven communities as close as Glenrock and far as Baggs and Rawlins, said Cynthia Langston, Casper’s solid waste manager.
“I’m going to be marketing for more towns as soon as we upgrade the baler building,” Langston said. “In the next year or year and a half we will be able to market to more communities. The more waste we get, the lower I can offer for a tipping fee. Then it’s cheaper for everybody.”
Other lined landfills include ones in Campbell, Park and Lincoln counties, Torrington, Cheyenne and Rock Springs.
Many towns could not line their landfills, which means within the next seven years, about 20 Wyoming landfills will be closing, McOmie said. Closures mean not only immediate costs in building a transfer station and capping but long term costs in shipping.
Those costs are how a small town in northeast Wyoming became the first place to require that residents pay for recycling.
A cheaper solution
The city of Sundance didn’t come to a mandatory recycling decision lightly, Lenz said. But it knew it had to close its landfill and faced steep transport costs.
“We knew we had to get our tonnage down when we started to transfer,” she said.
The recycling program pays for itself with a monthly fee, and when the city starts trucking garbage, it will have half as much as earlier years. The costs to ship to Casper or Gillette could be about $100 a ton. Less garbage means less money, she said.
McOmie has been using similar logic with cities across Wyoming for years.
Recycling programs don’t always pay for themselves. But if it costs $30 a ton to recycle, and $100 a ton to truck waste to another landfill, the savings add up, he said.
Some cities, like Rawlins, have found ways to make money on their recycling, said Marty Holloway, the Rawlins landfill and recycling superintendent.
He figures the city makes about $800 a month recycling all of the common household items. The city worked out a deal with the Wyoming State Penitentiary, which increases its volume and adds to savings.
“Slowly we’ve made changes so we make money,” Holloway said. “We shipped 66 percent more recyclables so far this year than in 2013. That’s stuff that’s not going to the landfill.”
Casper has seen increases in its recycling program, Langston said. Its residents recycled 35 percent more during the last seven years, which is about 10 percent of the town’s total waste.
But the city still isn’t ready for curbside. Recent surveys show resident support around 50 percent for amenity, she said.
Other towns may not have as much flexibility in the next few years as recycling becomes more about the bottom dollar than saving trees.