Not even the owner of Earth First Aid Curbside Recycling Inc. realized how popular his company's plastic recycling business was until a fire earlier this summer forced temporary discontinuation of the service.
Scott Berens, who hopes to have four drop-off locations reopened in a couple of weeks, says the July 4th weekend fire caused an estimated $500,000 damage to his Billings, Mont., small business.
Fire damage to the company's building forced Earth First Aid to pull its roll-off containers used to collect recyclables at four Albertsons grocery stores around town. There just isn't enough room to sort and process recyclables, including PET and high density polyethylene bottles, while crews work to repair damage.
“We've had to pull all of our material out of the shop so they have access to everything that they need to get the things done. That's what's held us up,” he said.
“We've always been the small guys in down, so I'm always trying to find a niche and doing something different that they are not, to set ourselves apart from them. These roll-off containers that accept the plastic bottles have been our little niche, and they've proven to be fairly popular,” Berens said.
Just how popular, the owner didn't even realize until after the fire.
Earth First Aid has curbside service as well as the drop-off trailers that accept a variety of recyclables, including plastic bottles, paper and metal. Berens always knew the drop-off spots were being used for plastics to some degree, but never really quantified that part of his business.
Now, he knows.
“Where we got backed up on the plastics is the simple fact is we have the only roll-off containers in town that accepts plastics for recycling. They're fairly popular. We kind of knew that before this. But I've fielded a lot of phone calls about them since this accident,” he said.
“Nobody wants them out there worse than I do just so I can tell people they are out there and they can stop calling,” Berens said.
“We pick up a fair amount from our curbside program, but those roll-off bins, they are just like running a route every day,” he said, without the wear and tear on equipment.
“That's been an eye opener on that end, for sure, and now we're realizing the financial end of it, realizing just how productive those bins have been for us,” he said.
With recycling volumes down to only what comes from curbside collection, Earth First Aid is just now starting to experience financial problems. That's because revenue from previous shipments, which are typically paid about a month after bales are shipped, has dried up.
“It's been stressful. It kind of jumped up and bit me a little faster than I anticipated,” Berens said. “It's something we didn't see coming and aren't used to it, but we're going to figure it out pretty quick.”
Earth First Aid does have insurance, and a line of credit. And Berens expects to learn on them both to get back on his feet completely.
“I know I've cursed writing that check a few times,” he said about his insurance premiums. “But when things like this happen, those guys have been a real blessing. They haven't blinked an eye.”
Another blessing, he said, came from a direct competitor. Republic Services Inc., the nation's second largest solid waste and recycling company, has operations right across the street from Earth First Aid. They are processing Berens' recyclables until he can start handling materials again.
Berens figures his company hands between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of plastic recyclables each week. “We only do plastic bottles, the 1s and 2s [PET and HDPE], anything with a screw-on lid,” he said.
“I can't thank Republic Services enough for being kind enough and reach out a hand to us considering we are their competition. They could have watched me founder over here pretty good. But they've been gracious enough to help me out,” he said.
Barb Butler is environmental compliance officer for Billings and said the drop-off locations provide the only place in the city where residents can recycle their plastic at no charge. Both Earth First Aid and Republic Services provide curbside collection of plastics, but there is a charge for that service.
“I think it's the case of there's some very, very devoted recyclers. They are the only company that will take plastic for free. ... These handy drop-offs for plastics were located at the most-used grocery stores in Billings, so I think those who are dedicated to recycling really miss them.”
The fire started in a garbage can where employees threw away empty containers that once carried a byproduct from the manufacture of biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil, the owner said. He figured the fire spontaneously combusted and spread from one garbage can to another as well as a dumpster, some nearby spare tires and part of the building.
“Thank goodness nobody was here. Well, on one hand. ... It would have been good if we could have caught it and put it out. Nobody was hurt. We had our little shop cat in here and she survived. We just got lucky,” Berens said.
“Thank goodness for insurance. We'll get back on our feet here. It's just a matter of time, and we'll get back into our rhythm and things will be good,” he said.