Despite substantial tonnage of aluminum, Pelican collection site is losing proposition for Otter Tail County

That old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons” is oddly appropriate to the Pelican Rapids recycling facility on the south end of town, just south of Larry’s Super Market.

“You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…”

Sixteen tons of aluminum are shoveled annually at the redemption center, on average, and customers are paid market rate per pound. Sixteen tons sounds like an immense load, but it is a losing proposition for the Otter Tail County Solid Waste Department. In other words, 16 tons of aluminum is putting the county deeper in debt–every year.

The center is staffed and open limited hours, Fridays and Saturdays, but with wages, operating costs and fluctuations in the price of aluminum, the operation loses $10,000 or more each year.

These losses, combined with pressing needs to renovate the building, have prompted the county to consider closing the redemption center, reported Chris McConn, Otter Tail County solid waste director, at the Oct. 9 Pelican City Council meeting.

“At some point, we have to ask ourselves whether it is cost effective,” said McConn. He said it costs the county about $2,000 per ton just to process the aluminum, which is more than the county takes in from the sale of the material. Actually, Pelican is the last off-site aluminum redemption site operated by the county, which operates two landfills and three “transfer stations,” where solid waste is deposited for transport to a permanent landfill. Also, noted McConn, privately-operated, for-profit businesses are redeeming aluminum, which further reduces the need for the county to collect and buy aluminum.

One of the issues facing the county is more or less of fairness, as other communities may want the same convenience of local can redemption–but as it stands, Pelican is the only site outside of Fergus Falls.

“Purely informational,” is how Otter Tail County Commissioner Wayne Johnson desc ibed the discussion with the council.

“We don’t operate in a vaccum…We wanted the city to hear the information…(The county) is struggling with how to do this.”

On the surface, closing an aluminum recycling site which is open only two days a week may not seem like a major blow to Pelican.

However, as Pelican city public facilities superintendent Brian Olson noted: There are local senior citizens and others who actively collect cans for cash. Also, noted Olson, the Pelican fire department operates a can collection trailer as a fundraiser for the firefighters. If the fire dept. had to haul loads of aluminum to Fergus Falls, rather than transporting the cans to a site a few blocks away, the Fire Dept. would probably discontinue the fundraiser.

Olson suggested that the transfer station, west of town, could accommodate an aluminim processing operation. And it is already staffed, so it could presumably be a lower cost.

But the county solid waste department is involved in long range planning, and would prefer to generally concentrate its resources and efforts on higher-impact solid waste issues. Rather than marginally profitable aluminum collection, when there are other options, the county is aiming at reducing mercury, hazardous household waste and other toxic materials from the land fills and water table as they are more environmentally urgent, said McConn.

The county has not made a decision on the Pelican center, but it appears likely that the site can’t be justified financially.

The county board and department heads are expected to discuss it in the coming weeks.