Whatcom’s Recyclers Face Uncertainty

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by Giovanni Roverso

Old Town Prepares for Redevelopment
Whatcom County’s curbside recycling system went through a bit of a shakeup recently.

Sanitary Service Company Inc. (SSC) trucks still collect recycling from customers in Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine, and much of unincorporated Whatcom County and Nooksack Valley, almost as if nothing has changed. 

However, some customers in Bellingham might have noticed recycling trucks have been arriving at a different time than usual. 

SSC trucks used to take recycling to various facilities operated by Northwest Recycling Inc., a subsidiary of Parberry’s Inc., in Bellingham. But in November, Northwest Recycling informed SSC that it would be shutting down its material recovery facility in Old Town on Jan. 31, 2021. 

At a Bellingham City Council meeting in September, Northwest Recycling CEO Kevin Moore said Parberry’s Inc. shareholders no longer wished to continue operating the facility. They were looking for a buyer for that part of their recycling business (not including the land). 

A view of Old Town and the Northwest Recycling metal scrapyard and brick building at 700 W. Holly Street. The two-story building is getting remodeled and will be used by businesses on the ground floor, while apartments will be on the second floor. – Photo by Giovanni Roverso, May 14, 2021.

City officials were surprised that it would be shutting down the sorting facility so soon. This gave SSC less than 90 days to find an alternative solution capable of handling 60 to 65 tons of recycling coming from its service area per day. 

Rate Increase
On Dec. 1, 2020, SSC’s rates went up about 30 percent in anticipation of increasing operating costs. That means that the monthly price went up by $6.31 for the most common service deal of recycling every week and trash every other. 

Just six days before the Old Town facility was shut down on Jan. 25, Director of Public Works Eric Johnston said it was still uncertain what the recycling solution would be and whether it would be short or long term. 

The recycling that SSC customers put in the blue bin isn’t getting sorted in-house anymore. Now, five trucks hauling the county’s recycling make about 40 trips per day in and out of Scrap-It Recycling Services in Ferndale, a subsidiary of Parberry Environment Solutions. Then, Mount Vernon-based Lautenbach Recycling picks it up and takes it to get sorted outside of Whatcom County. 

The kicker here is that Brian Parberry, the president of Parberry Environment Solutions Inc., told the Watch he has nothing to do with what is going on in Old Town. And yet, is it a coincidence that he is part of the same family and offers, give or take, the same services as his Bellingham-based relatives?

As it turns out, Brian Parberry, Carol Kuljis, Jack Parberry and Louis Parberry III are the four siblings surviving the late Louis Parberry Jr. According to the Scrap-It website, Brian Parberry would work at his father’s scrapyard after school in the 1960s.

Brian Parberry sold his share of the family business after his father’s passing in 2008, he said in a 2010 interview with The Bellingham Business Journal. It had been 30 years since his father had put him in charge of his recycling buyback center in 1978. 

Currently, Parberry’s Inc. subsidiary Northwest Recycling is managed by Brad Parberry and his nephew Marty Kuljis. According to their website, Carol Kuljis and Louis Parberry III help out.

The Parberry family has a long history with Old Town, where it has operated since 1923. 

From Old Town Scrapyard …
Back then, much of Old Town was built over the mudflats of the Whatcom Creek estuary, which had become a natural place for the city’s waste. Buildings were set up on pilings, and the space below them was gradually filled in. 

The Old Town area north of Holly Street was officially designated a landfill site in 1937 and remained so until 1953. It was filled with municipal waste and a variety of materials not limited to metal scrap, coal slag, dredge spoil, and ashes. 

Around this time, the scrap recycling business, Parberry Iron & Metal, moved to the two-story brick building at 700 W. Holly. In the 1950s, Louis Parberry Jr. took over the family business. Over the years, he diversified it to include ventures in new steel sales and hardware retail. 

A map of properties belonging to Parberry’s Inc., Northwest Recycling Inc. and Parberry Family Limited Partnership in Old Town, Bellingham. Here you can see all the land which is up for sale, to be redeveloped as a new urban village. The lot at 600 W. Holly Street is still owned by the city (as of May 2021), but is also up for sale. Note the edge of the old landfill that remains buried under the area.
graphic: Giovanni Roverso

Parberry Iron & Metal eventually expanded into different kinds of material buyback. In 1974, it was reformed as Northwest Recycling Inc. 

The idea of recycling to reduce waste became more and more popular in Bellingham thanks to the efforts of WWU’s recycling program, beginning in 1972, and Bellingham Community Recycling, beginning in 1982. 

… To the City’s Contracted Recycler
Between 1982 and 1986, Bellingham Community Recycling developed a curbside recycling program in cooperation with WWU, advocating for a city-run program. 

The Washington State Department of Ecology issued “best management practices” for solid waste in 1988, supporting recycling as a basic strategy of waste management. This paved the way for the Waste Not Washington Act which the state Legislature passed the following year. It mandated a 50 percent reduction or recycling of municipal solid waste by 1995.

In 1989, the city of Bellingham began a contract with Sanitary Service Company Inc. (SSC) to haul residential curbside recycling. Northwest Recycling got the contract as the city’s go-to recycler. Today, SSC’s curbside recycling is one of just a few programs in the United States to be curbside sorted, making materials much more marketable.

At this point, Bellingham Community Recycling ceased operating as a recycler, dedicating itself to environmental advocacy (now RE Sources). 

Northwest Recycling’s PTAG (plastic, tin, aluminum, and glass) sorting line was set up at 1419 C Street in Bellingham. These are called material recovery facilities in the industry. 

A warehouse was set up when Northwest Recycling started taking cardboard on 1515 Kentucky Street on the east side of the freeway. Curbside recycling was expanded from residential service only, to include private businesses in 1991.

As Georgia-Pacific’s industrial operations on the waterfront started shutting down, in 2005, the city updated its Comprehensive Plan, identifying Old Town and the central waterfront as districts ideally suited to be revitalized and redeveloped into urban village centers.

In 2008, the same year Louis Parberry Jr. passed away, the city of Bellingham adopted the Old Town Subarea Plan, outlining a vision for the neighborhood. Old Town is one of the last urban village sites in the city to begin redevelopment.

Redevelopment Plan
The city finally came to an agreement to redevelop Old Town in 2019 with Parberry’s Inc., Northwest Recycling Inc. and Parberry Family Limited Partnership, before the Northwest Recycling shutdown was announced. The agreement would require that they move out their businesses so that the new urban village could be built.

The city originally envisioned that a single developer would be in charge of the project . To make redevelopment more comprehensive and easier to accomplish, the city also offered to sell two nearby city-owned plots to Parberry’s Inc. shareholders. This would make the urban village span over almost seven acres of property.

Six milestones are in the agreement:

 Submit a redevelopment strategy. This was fulfilled with a plan to sell the Old Town property to prospective developers intending to complete the redevelopment;

 Either the scrapyard or the material recovery facility was to be relocated or closed down by February 2022;

 Complete a project permit application for the renovation of the two-story building at 700 W. Holly Street by Feb. 21, 2021. The shareholders are expected to spend more than 50 percent of the building’s value on the remodel. 

 Relocate or cease all non-conforming operations in Old Town by Feb. 21, 2023. The recycling operations are considered light industrial and the new zoning will be mixed use (commercial-residential).

 A temporary occupancy permit must be sent to the city for the 700 W. Holly Street building by Feb. 21, 2023. This would ensure that businesses and residents can start using the building as soon as possible.

 A second construction project permit application must be submitted by Feb. 21, 2024. 

As part of the agreement, the city agreed to pay for the cost of certain infrastructure improvements. 

One of the two properties the city offered is on 707 Astor Street, a plot in the east corner of Holly’s 700 block where Home Port Learning Center for at-risk youth used to be. This sold to Parberry’s Inc. in January 2019.

The other, which remains unsold, is a large plot at 600 W. Holly occupying two blocks along Whatcom Creek where Bellingham Sash and Door Company once operated. 

For now, Parberry’s Inc. shareholders are holding on to the building at 700 W. Holly Street. It will have a commercial space on the lower level and apartments on the upper. 

They are also keeping the T.G. Richards Building, the oldest brick building in Bellingham, built in 1858 at the edge of the estuarine mudflat. Originally a storage and commission business, it later served various purposes: a post office, Washington Territory’s first courthouse, and, later, Whatcom County’s third courthouse, to name a few. Now fully restored, it serves as the Helen Loggie Museum of Art.

From the lot where Northwest Recycling once scrapped vehicles in Old Town — inactive since the Covid-19 pandemic — you can see the T. G. Richards & Co. building (1858). It’s the Oldest brick building in Bellingham and now serves as the Helen Loggie Museum of Art. – Photo by Giovanni Roverso, May 14, 2021.

The Parberry family members who still own Old Town properties will not be selling the T. G. Richards & Co. building. Built in 1858 over the Whatcom Creek mudflats, it’s the Oldest brick building in Bellingham and now serves as the Helen Loggie Museum of Art. – Photo by Giovanni Roverso, May 14, 2021.

A plaza will be either dedicated or conveyed to the city between the museum and Holly Street. Everything else will be cleared out for redevelopment. Even Louis Parberry Jr.’s house has been demolished. 

In 2004, the Department of Ecology and the city remediated the banks of Whatcom Creek along the 600 block property to prevent contaminants from the historic landfill from seeping out, like metals and carcinogenic aromatic polynuclear hydrocarbons (this is likely from the coal slag in the landfill). 

Environmental Caveats
Restrictive covenants were also put in place to ensure that the landfill would remain sufficiently undisturbed, and that human safety was ensured. One such covenant with Parberry’s Inc. was mentioned in the Old Town development agreement which also prohibits “ground floor residential or day care uses.” 

This could make redevelopment trickier, but the city committed to assist the current or future property owners in their effort to amend the restrictive covenant to “remove the ground-floor residential restriction […] or allow for the mitigation of the health and safety concerns associated with the ground-floor residential restriction.”  

The agreement also imposes certain limitations within the 50-foot creek shoreline buffer in the 600 block site. For example, to flatten the property, foundation walls within the buffer would have to be removed, but only once a geotechnical report is submitted to the city.

View of the edge of the 600 W. Holly Street block and the Holly Street bridge over Whatcom Creek from the fish hatchery in Maritime Heritage Park. The fish hatchery was placed at Bellingham’s old wastewater treatment plant (1947-1974). The banks of the creek within the park were reinforced to prevent toxic seepage from the old landfill once located here in 2004. – Photo by Giovanni Roverso, May 14, 2021.

The urban village project promises to be a significant undertaking, spanning about nine city blocks.

Shutting Down
However, in late 2020, Parberry’s Inc. shareholders decided they did not want to bring the urban village to completion, nor did they want to continue with plans to relocate their Old Town operations.

So, at a City Council meeting on Sept. 14, 2020, amendments were made to the agreement. 

“We’ve always known that the cost of relocation is likely to approach or perhaps even exceed the cost of our property in Old Town,” Moore said at the meeting. 

While they had been prepared to proceed before, he said, they made their decision after much deliberation. This, he said, was due to the age of the shareholders, the size of the project and little else.

They also were looking for a third-party interested in purchasing the material recovery facility operation and its assets. He said the shareholders hoped the new owners would manage the relocation and continue the contract with SSC. 

They also expected the future owners of the property and of the business assets to comply with the terms of the development agreement.

“They didn’t give the city a lot of time,” Brian Parberry told the Watch. 

Setting up a material recovery facility at a new location would require a zoning permit and a stormwater permit, for example. It would all take about five years to do, he said. Even just finding a place that could be used to transfer municipal solid waste materials requires a permit. 

Conveniently, Parberry Environment Solution’s land already had the necessary permits and space to work with. It was the right place at the right time. 

Lautenbach Recycling had the spare trucks and the manpower needed to haul the PTAG recycling away to other sorting facilities, with a central base of operations. So, for now, and for a price, Lautenbach Recycling runs a transfer station in Ferndale.

“They’re getting one hell of a deal,” Brian Parberry said.

In Old Town, the old family property is now up for sale.

Old Town Loose Ends
Commercial real estate firm Marcus & Millichap listed the Old Town properties for sale between April and May 2021. The properties are being offered either together or separately. The offering also includes the option to purchase the 600 block property, which the city still owns. 

Moore told the Watch that when the material recovery facility business in Old Town was put up for sale last year, it was as a package. This was comprised of the equipment, people, know-how, and customers, he said. 

The material recycling facility was for sale separate from Northwest Recycling’s other operations, Moore said. Such operations include the cardboard buyback, scrap, steel plate rental and container storage rental. Vehicle recycling stopped in 2020 when Covid-19 struck and is unlikely to resume, he said.

Not including the owners, the entirety of Northwest Recycling has about 20 employees. Moore said the company operates a half-dozen trucks used for hauling scrap, picking up bins from customers, and delivering storage containers. 

When Northwest Recycling shut down the material recovery facility, the company also stopped accepting mixed paper, which is less valuable than corrugated cardboard. SSC still takes curbside scrap metal and some cardboard to Northwest Recycling for the time being, SSC General Manager Ted Carlson said in February.

Through the gate, leftover paper can still be seen sitting at Northwest Recycling’s 1419 C Street facility in Old Town, which stopped accepting recycling from Sanitary Service Company on Feb. 1, 2021. The lot is also where the material recovery facility used to sort Bellingham’s residential plastic, tin, aluminum and glass. – Photo by Giovanni Roverso, May 14, 2021.

For now, the Old Town scrapyard continues to operate, as well as the cardboard facility at 1515 Kentucky Street in the Roosevelt neighborhood, and people can still drop off materials there.

The Kentucky Street facility is not currently for sale, Moore said, but it could be sold, with or without the land since it is not located in Old Town. The container rental business office is on 1280 D Street in Old Town, but Moore said they have a storage yard on Marine Drive and a second location in Burlington. So, it seems likely that the business will continue with a new office. 

No local recycling operator expressed interest in buying the material recycling facility when it was initially put up for sale last year, Moore said.

“Troy [Lautenbach] was not one of the people we approached at that time,” he said. “He only became interested in the residential recycling business when SSC approached him.”

In April, Lautenbach spoke to the Watch about buying Northwest Recycling or its assets.

“They just haven’t been ready to sell any of it,” Lautenbach said.

For now, Lautenbach Recycling is carefully weighing its options. The first thing the recycler wanted to do was to get up and running with a way to continue preserving the value of curbside-sorted recycling. Mixing paper with PTAG recycling is a much more common approach to recycling. But, separation significantly increases the value and marketability of recyclables.

“We’re still adjusting, actually, you know, and trying to stay on top of everything,” Lautenbach said.

Sanitary Service Company’s recycling isn’t all getting taken to Northwest Recycling in Bellingham anymore, since the company closed down its sort- ing line in Old Town on Jan. 31, 2021. Now, only some carboard is taken by the company and sent to Longview. Most of SSCs recycling now goes to Parberry Environment Solutions in Ferndale. Plastic, tin, aluminum and glass now gets picked up by Lautenbach Recycling is taken to two sorting facilities in King County. Parberry Environment Solutions takes cardboard to mills in Port Townsend and Toledo, Oregon, and mixed paper mostly goes offshore to foreign countries.
graphic: Giovanni Roverso

Bellingham’s Waste Streams
Parberry Environment Solutions Inc. has been operating Scrap-It Recycling Services and Stow-It Storage Container Rental Solutions since 2010. These businesses are located at the upper portion of the old Recomp of Washington facility in Ferndale.

SSC operates four trash trucks, five recycling trucks and one compost truck. 

Since February, the majority of these trucks take their haul to Ferndale. One exception is the compost truck, which travels to Green Earth Technology in Lynden. The other exception is that some of the cardboard still gets taken to Northwest Recycling’s facility in Bellingham.

Bellingham’s residential waste has been going up to the Recomp location for years. For a while, it was getting incinerated there. In 1990, Recomp sold the waste transfer station at the south end of the site to what is now Republic Services. 

Bellingham’s residential solid waste has gone out by train to a landfill in Roosevelt, in southern Eastern Washington, for the last 25 years, a spokesperson said. They said that the city of Bellingham produces about 12,000 tons of such waste per year— which is enough to fill a total of 400 containers, which fit on 200 train cars. 

Recycling & Disposal Services Inc. also operates a transfer station in Ferndale and sends trash to a landfill near Arlington, Oregon. SSC has been a major partner for years and has been taking much of the trash from the county, as well as Bellingham waste that is not picked up, as part of the residential curbside contract.

A new contract was sought for residential waste landfilling after a lawsuit settlement from the 1990s expired in 2016, thus allowing the city to choose its provider. Johnston said the city chose Republic Services in an open competitive selection process.

Price and carbon footprint were among the deciding factors. He said the Roosevelt landfill recovers natural gas and produces enough to offset the carbon load from SSC’s trash trucks. The Roosevelt landfill is near the Columbia River, northeast of The Dalles.

SSC is also committed to a phased replacement of its diesel trucks with compressed natural gas ones. Carlson said a fueling station was constructed, and, so far, 40 percent of the fleet has been replaced. The compost truck and three of four trash trucks have been converted, while none of the recycling trucks have been yet, Carlson said. Timing for the others will depend on the trucks’ requirement of expensive maintenance to continue operating.

Four trucks take seven trips per week to handle Bellingham’s recycling, and it’s collected by hand, Johnston said in January. By weight, about 22 percent of collected solid waste is recyclable, but, because it can’t be compacted in the trucks, it’s not as space-efficient as trash hauling is.

Recycling in the Balance
While SSC’s December rate increase was likely triggered by Northwest Recycling shutting down its sorting line, this just contributed a new degree of uncertainty in an already uncertain market. Increased spending on truck drivers’ wages also led to the increase, spurned by rising truck insurance premiums. 

SSC’s rate increase announcement in December stated that recycling processing fees had increased by 40 percent over the previous 18 months. China’s tightening of restrictions for contaminant levels in foreign recycling in 2018 lead to an oversupply of materials in “lacking” domestic markets, causing prices of recyclable materials to plummet. 

Rate adjustments normally occur in March, but Carlson said SSC had delayed it up until that point to lessen the burden of the pandemic on the community. Carlson said it is difficult to predict how much SSC’s rate would change in the future, but that the next adjustment would likely be announced in March 2022 and will likely occur the following May. 

He said the cost will depend on the value of recyclables going forward. Everything costs more than landfill rates to be recycled. The only material of any value, Carlson said, is cardboard.

Cardboard, for example, used to fetch about $85 per ton and now only about $30.

Brian Parberry said Scrap-It markets cardboard to mills in Toledo, Oregon (likely Georgia-Pacific) and Port Townsend (Port Townsend Paper), and sends most of its mixed paper offshore. Northwest Recycling sends its cardboard to KapStone Paper & Packaging Corporation in Longview.

Johnston said in January it probably costs around $160 per ton to recycle the city’s plastic. It has likely increased since then. Lautenbach Recycling does not have a material recovery facility. Rather, it trucks Whatcom’s PTAG materials for sorting to either Recology Cleanscapes in south Seattle or to Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville. Lautenbach said it can fall back on one facility or the other just in case one becomes temporarily unavailable.

Recology Inc.’s facility was considered state-of-the-art in 2014 when it was built, and Waste Management Inc. built the Cascade Recycling Center in 2003 (for about $22 million).

Solving A Unique Problem
Setting up a material recovery facility would take millions of dollars of investment. Lautenbach Recycling would be in a unique position unlike anywhere else in the country, Lautenbach said. 

It’s a challenge because of Whatcom County’s relatively low volumes of recyclable material — but the value of the materials would be higher because of the curb separation. 

“I have colleagues of mine across the nation that I’ve been talking with about different ideas,” he said.

“A sort line’s a sort line,” he said. A basic sorting line is essentially made up of conveyors. You can add on to a sort line with automated sorting machines like optical sorters and eddy currents, Lautebach said. Lautenbach said they are definitely going to consider having these.

He wasn’t sure whether he would want to use Northwest Recycling’s sort line equipment or not, he said.

But Lautenbach said he thought there was enough space at the Scrap-It warehouse and would intend to stay there.

It would require a permit adjustment to turn it into a fully fledged material recovery facility, but he said that the Health Department has been helpful and understands the need to move quickly with the process.

Recycling Renaissance
Lautenbach said there’s a lot of energy around recycling and sustainability right now and a lot of people are trying to make things happen.

“We’ve had a big shift,” he said. “Anything’s on the table, if you ask me.”

Even before the current recycling crisis, Bellingham’s recycling approach was not perfect. The city and county simply didn’t have access to recyclers that could handle everything that should be recycled. 

“You can collect the stuff, but if you don’t have somewhere for it to go,” Lautenbach said, “it doesn’t pay to put the investment in for pulling the material.”

Aseptic and non-aseptic food and beverage cartons (commonly marketed as Tetra Pak), for example, get landfilled. 

Recology does accept these containers. SSC could be taking cartons from curbside recycling customers with enough community support.

Material under three inches also doesn’t make it through most sorting facilities and falls through and sometimes jams equipment, a very common problem.

Now, states like Washington and California are racing to make legislation that revitalizes the recycling industry. 

Washington’s Senate Bill 5022, which the state Legislature passed this year, will increase the market for recyclable plastic by requiring a minimum recycled content amount in certain types of packaging (like plastic bottles). 

Next year, House Bill 1118, if passed, would become the first law in the country to hold producers responsible for their packaging, ensuring that more gets recycled and, so, increasing the value of these materials.

Giovanni A. Roverso is an Italian-American visual journalism major at Western Washington University. Portfolio and blog at www.giovanniroverso.com