Paper or plastic?

Ross Millet’s summer job involves that question, but not in the way you might think.

Rather than bagging groceries, the Bowling Green High School senior is bagging and delivering recyclables as his way of responding to a community need while making some spending money.

“Our trash can was filling up with recyclables,” said Ross, recalling how his unusual business venture got started. “My mom said we needed to get something going to help with this.”

Ross and his mom recognized the trashy problem after Southern Recycling stopped curbside recycling pickups in March, roughly corresponding to the beginning of coronavirus-induced quarantining that further bumped up the household trash volume.

“I was hearing people say they hated just throwing stuff away,” said Allison Millet, Ross’ mother. “People still wanted to do it (recycle).”

She soon discovered just how much her neighbors wanted to divert their paper, plastic, cardboard and glass from the trash bin.

After Ross did a trial run of just two households to the Southern Recycling drop-off location on North Graham Drive, his mother posted on social media about providing the service for others at $5 per pickup.

Allison Millet, who uses social media to promote her Backyard Bootcamp fitness business, found a host of environmentally conscious neighbors in Briarwood subdivision and nearby areas.

“So far I have about 50 clients,” Ross said. “It has blown up more than I thought it would.”

So much that he now fills the trailer that is towed behind his father’s pickup truck each Tuesday and has started making a second run on Wednesdays.

“It’s growing rapidly, and I’m happy about that,” Ross said. “Our world needs stuff recycled.”

Briarwood resident Christina Addington, who had bought a second trash can to handle the growth in items headed for a landfill, has been grateful for the service Ross provides.

“We used the (curbside) recycling service a lot,” Addington said. “I hated to just throw those recyclables away. Now we just sort everything and bag it, and Ross takes it away. It helps my husband, too, because I was going to make him take the stuff to the (Southern Recycling) drop-off.”

Rodgie Millet, who accompanies Ross on the Tuesday runs to Southern Recycling, said the pickups of paper and plastic have turned into a great summer job for his son.

“It has turned out to be positive for him and for the neighborhood,” Rodgie Millet said. “He saw a need and found a way to meet it. He’s always aware of things going on in our world, and he’s always looking to do good. He’s that kind of kid.”

Ross has even inspired a couple of his friends to take up the same entrepreneurial venture. Sam Kurtz and Ethan Taylor, both seniors at BGHS, have started picking up recyclables in the Rivergreen subdivision and delivering them to Southern Recycling.

“I hated seeing so many people with plastic and stuff in their trash cans,” said Kurtz, who has about 20 customers. “The response has been great.”

Kurtz said he would like to continue providing the service, but Southern Recycling plans to close the drop-off location July 31, when its contract with the county expires.

“Unless we can find another place to take the recyclables, we’ll discontinue the service,” Kurtz said.

For now, finding another recycling service seems doubtful.

Southern Recycling has had the curbside franchise with the county since 1995, when recycling was instituted as a way to meet a statewide goal of reducing the amount of waste going to landfills by 25 percent.

When he announced the end of the company’s curbside pickup program, Southern Recycling President Rob Rutherford said global markets for recyclables had dried up since China stopped taking them two years ago.

Warren County Environmental Planning and Assistance Coordinator Stan Reagan said in December when he announced the end of curbside pickup that Southern Recycling was losing about $30,000 per month on the curbside program.

Reagan said this week that he is planning to advertise for bids from companies to handle garbage pickup and recycling, but the coronavirus has delayed that process.

“Under the circumstances, it’s not prudent at this juncture to hold public hearings,” Reagan said in an email. “It’s essential to have opportunities for people and officials to ask questions and hear feedback.”

At least one current solid waste vendor and potential recycling vendor believes future recycling programs will have to change from what county residents have grown accustomed to and will need to cost more than the $2.65 per month that county residents had been paying.

Andy Reynolds, government and community affairs manager for Waste Management Inc., said the downturn in the market for recyclables has “taken an industry that was profitable and turned it into one that costs money. The actual cost to process the items is more than the revenue.”

Reynolds said any future recycling program will “have to change the rate to make it commensurate with the cost of processing.”

If nothing else, the curbside program that Ross Millet has been doing has shown that many residents are willing to pay a bit more to have their recyclables picked up.

Whether he’s involved or not, Ross wants to see a resurrection of the county’s recycling program.

“I’m hoping something gets worked out and someone will start a program,” he said.

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

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