Kootenai County could become a regional recycling mecca by building the area’s first materials recovery facility that would allow single-source recycling.
That theoretically means Kootenai County and Spokane residents could put all of their recyclables – plastic, cardboard, aluminum cans – in one curbside bin for pickup without separating them.
The recyclables then would end up at the materials recovery facility, where it’s envisioned that Kootenai County jail inmates would separate the commodities and prepare them for shipping.
“This could put recycling ahead 20 years in Kootenai County,” Solid Waste Director Roger Saterfiel said.
He sees it as a revenue source for the county and the best opportunity to improve recycling, which would in the long run save the county money by extending the life of the landfill.
Steve Wulf, regional district manager for Waste Management in Spokane, shares the enthusiasm.
“That’s where we see recycling going in the future,” Wulf said.
Currently this type of recycling center is only profitable in larger areas such as Seattle and Portland, which have the largest volume of recyclables. The Kootenai County Commission recently toured centers near Seattle and Salt Lake City and is intrigued by the local possibilities.
The commission is in talks with Spokane Recycling Products to see how a regional facility could work.
Both sides are reluctant to release too many details because the discussion is preliminary.
To make the center feasible, the county would need to import recycling from Spokane and likely Lewiston, Montana and Canada.
Ultimately it would mean that participating communities could recycle a larger array of materials.
Willie Lampe, president of Spokane Recycling Products, said the current perception is that recycling is difficult and confusing.
“Hopefully it would … make recycling easier,” he said. “I’m more than willing to give that a shot.”
The general idea is for the county to build the materials recovery center, which may resemble a 650,000-square-foot warehouse, on the same property as the new Prairie Transfer Station that’s under construction just west of Post Falls off Pleasant View Road.
The county would contract with Spokane Recycling Products to provide the equipment and operate the facility.
Sheriff Rocky Watson is proposing to use inmates to sort the recyclables. Lampe is willing to try using inmate labor, which would give him an inexpensive source of workers. He envisions hiring some of the inmates when they are released from jail because they already would be trained.
Watson sees it as a way to keep inmates busy and perhaps make them employable upon release.
The commission was excited about the idea when Watson first proposed it but backed down recently citing concerns about inmate health from potential dust, creating too much liability.
Last week the commissioners had eased their stance on the health concerns.
“If it were an unsafe environment, we would take necessary precautions,” Commissioner Todd Tondee said, noting that in some facilities workers wear respirators and other protective gear. “There are people working in these all across the country every day.”
Lampe’s employees who sort recyclables at the company’s Main Avenue facility in Spokane don’t wear respirators or other gear except hard hats and goggles.
“Dangerous? It’s not dangerous,” he said in May when asked about the commissioners’ concerns. “On a scale of 1 to 10 it’s a 0.5.”
Lampe said his company rarely gets any workers’ compensation claims.
While standing over a large conveyor belt, Lampe demonstrated how the inmates would separate the recyclables and drop them into bins below.
The sheriff’s department would provide security and ensure that the inmates didn’t pick up anything that could be used as a weapon. Lampe said a bigger concern is inmates finding pornography and either stashing it at the center or taking it back to the jail.
The department would transport inmates from the jail to the materials recovery facility by van and park inside the secure support facility. The inmates would unload, change their clothes and then begin a day of sorting.
At the end of their shift they would undress, shower and change back into their jumpsuits and wait for the van to return them to jail.
Watson said he would like to see the facility attached to the recycling center, to further increase security. But he also wants to ensure the inmates have no contact with the center’s contract employees.
“A lot depends on the design,” he said.
For now, that’s in the future. The commissioners said educating people about the need for the jail and sheriff’s complex expansion is the first priority.
The commission released a $147 million recommendation last week for a jail expansion and new sheriff’s administration facility.
The recycling facility isn’t included in the consultant’s recommendation, but there is a $1.37 million proposal for a support facility at the transfer station.
Lampe said he doubts anything official will happen before the November general election, when the Kootenai County jail proposal will be on the ballot along with two county commission seats.