Washington County Board of Commissioners face criticism in recycling decision

May 19, 2012|By HEATHER KEELS |
  • Sorters remove recyclables Thursday at Waste Management recycling facility near Elkridge, Md.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Since deciding in January to scale back county recycling to promote use of private curbside pickup, the Washington County Board of Commissioners has faced criticism from both sides of the issue.

To some, the solution — a private, opt-out curbside pickup program — did not seem comprehensive or compulsory enough; to others, not voluntary enough.

Meanwhile, the decision to restrict access to the county’s drop-off recycling bins and to begin charging to use them has led to concerns that frustrated users will stop recycling altogether.

As of May 7, the county had logged 12 complaints saying the opt-out program was a poor decision, 11 complaints about restricting access to the bins and six complaints that there will be a fee associated with recycling, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy, obviously,” he said.

Murray described the commissioners’ actions as a compromise that allowed them to encourage recycling without forcing anyone who doesn’t participate to help pay for it.

“What they wanted to do was provide a voluntary means to recycle that didn’t impact the tax base,” he said.

To Boonsboro resident and recycling advocate Janeen Solberg, that’s exactly the problem.

 “When you take something that in most parts of the country is considered a necessary service, provided by the government to the citizens in order to help them make the right choices for the greater good — that’s how I look at recycling,” Solberg said. “It’s a service that in my mind, in the minds of many people, should automatically be part of our taxes. And I hear a lot and read a lot about our lack of funds, but at the same time I think what it really reflects is a lack of values.”

Understanding the differing perspectives on the issue requires some background into the county’s landfill operations and what happens to recyclables after they are dropped off in a bin.

A question of cost-effectiveness

Recycling advocates point to saved landfill space as a benefit of expanded recycling, but according to Murray, the equation is not that simple.

At the current pace, the county has almost 100 years’ worth of space available at its Forty West Landfill, he said.

It has been estimated that a countywide curbside recycling program, with an “acceptable” level of participation, would save the county one cell’s worth of landfill space over 50 years, Murray said.

A cell costs about $10 million, and at the current pace, takes about five to six years to fill, he said.

Meanwhile, to provide recycling bins and pay a contractor for curbside recycling countywide carries an estimated $2 million a year price tag, or $100 million over 50 years, Murray said.

“In 50 years, we’re looking at a $100 million cost to save $10 million on a landfill cell,” he said. “So we net out $90 million to save five years on a 100-year landfill. That’s just not cost-effective.”

Not everyone is convinced of those figures.

“I don’t think that those numbers can be right,” said Jerome Martin, a county Solid Waste Advisory Commission member and former Smithsburg Town Council member. “I can’t see it being that expensive.”

When Smithsburg first sought bids for its recycling contract, the figures came in much lower than the council anticipated, Martin said.

“A lot of people just take (cost estimates) at their word,” he said. “We here in Smithsburg didn’t.”

Does space matter?

With the county’s level of remaining landfill space, running out is not really an issue, Murray said.

“Ninety-five years from now, the regulations are going to be such that landfill space is probably not going to matter, because there will be other alternatives for energy production and solid waste disposal other than just burying it,” Murray said.

Sending the county’s waste to regional “waste to energy” facilities is one such option, he said.

The landfill space factor also is complicated by another issue.

Recycling, Murray said, “does extend the life of the landfill, but that’s a double-edged sword, because the less waste we get in, the less revenue we get in, and that drives the cost per ton up.”

If the price gets too high, haulers will take their trash to larger landfills that can afford to charge lower rates, he said.

“So the more waste we lose, the closer we come to being priced out of the business of operating a landfill,” he said.

‘Stop the bleeding’

Groups and individuals have lobbied for many years for the county to take action on recycling, and the commissioners had considered several options in recent years.

But the issue came to a head this year in part because of the solid waste budget, Murray said.

The recycling program the county had been offering — a set of bins throughout the county where any county resident could drop off recyclables — is no longer feasible, Murray said.

The county uses revenue from landfill fees to pay to offer those bins, he said, but increased costs and decreased volumes have cut into landfill revenue to the point where the county was left with three options for next year: Raise landfill fees, charge a recycling fee or subsidize the recycling program with general tax dollars.

The decision to remove unstaffed recycling drop-off boxes and charge a permit fee to use the bins at the landfill and transfer stations was a way to “stop the bleeding” from the solid waste fund, Murray said.

Why recycling costs

The county does not process recycled materials itself, but hires a contractor to pick them up.

Each “pull,” or contractor’s collection of the recyclables from a drop-off bin, costs the county about $166, Murray said. That’s for about 3,000 pounds of material.

In 2011, the county collected 2,978 tons of recyclables, county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher said.

That fee includes a per-pull hauling fee as well as a scale fee charged by the material recovery facility where the hauler takes the materials, Murray said. The material recovery facility sorts and processes the recyclables, then resells them, he said.

Right now, it costs more to process the materials than what the material recovery facility gets by reselling the materials, so they make up the difference by charging a per-ton scale fee on incoming material, Murray said.

However, at Waste Management’s Elkridge Material Recovery Facility, where most single-stream recycling from Maryland is taken to be sorted, Area Recycling Operations Director Jim Marcinko contradicted Murray’s explanation.

Marcinko said the Elkridge facility actually pays counties, municipalities and haulers for the material they drop off there.

At that 50,000 square foot plant, conveyer belts criss-cross a large room as machines and workers sort the mix of paper, cardboard, cans and bottles, and machines compress the materials into bundles on palates, ready to ship to buyers.

‘Make government smaller’

The $3-per-month permit fee the county will begin charging July 1 for use of the recycling drop-off bins is designed to cover the operation cost of the bins, Murray said.

However, the county is making the permits available only to those who live outside of the pilot area for the Allied Waste curbside program.

If residents in the pilot areas were allowed to sign up to use the bins, “it makes it much less lucrative to have any other recycling program the commissioners are trying to promote, such as curbside,” Murray said.

“If you’re going to expect third-party contractors to put up the capital, hire the employees and do what it takes to provide curbside recycling, then once that’s available, we need to scale back what we provide so that that service is used,” he said. “Make government smaller so it allows the contractors to actually cost-effectively provide that service that we’re looking for.”

The bins are being kept for use by those residents in more rural areas where curbside recycling is not available, Murray said.

Ideally, he said, affordable curbside pickup eventually will be available countywide, at which point the county would stop offering bins.

The county pays employees to make sure the people using the recycling bins do not put nonrecyclables in them, he said. Under the new system, those employees also will check for the required permit stickers.

If the county did not have the recycling bins, it might be able to reduce costs at the transfer stations by replacing those employees with a system of key cards and cameras, he said.

Not everyone pleased

At least one county commissioner is unhappy with the decision to restrict access to the landfill bins.

Commissioner Terry Baker said at a recent commissioners’ meeting that he thought every citizen should have the option to buy a permit to use the bins.

Baker also said he had not been aware that Allied Waste’s program would be an opt-out program.

“I just think this is an aggressive approach,” he said.

Baker said he thought Allied Waste should instead have sent cards asking residents if they wanted to participate.

Murray stressed that households will get multiple notifications about the program and that opting out is simply a matter of making one phone call to the company.

Even if a household does not call to opt out, if they don’t put out recyclables and don’t pay their bill, the company will pick up the bin and will not charge that household, Murray said.

“At least you have the option of opting out,” Murray said. “It’s not mandated, which the commissioners could do and which most municipalities require.”

Of the 7,800 homes that were mailed postcards about the opt-out program, about 1,200 of them opted out before bins were delivered last week, said Don Groseclose, Chesapeake area municipal manager for Allied Waste.

After the bin distribution began, Allied had received about 1,600 more requests from households that don’t want the service as of Thursday, Groseclose said.

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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