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Island County marks Earth Day by killing recycling program

Reilly Richards, a 16-year-old Coupeville resident who attends Oak Harbor High School, urges Island County commissioners to retain the mandatory curbside recycling program adopted in December. She spoke in vain, as the program was rejected. At left in the leather jacket is Cynthia Tilkin, a Langley business owner, one of several South Whidbey residents who spoke Tuesday night.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Reilly Richards, a 16-year-old Coupeville resident who attends Oak Harbor High School, urges Island County commissioners to retain the mandatory curbside recycling program adopted in December. She spoke in vain, as the program was rejected. At left in the leather jacket is Cynthia Tilkin, a Langley business owner, one of several South Whidbey residents who spoke Tuesday night.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

The Island County commissioners likely made history this week when they killed a curbside recycling program on Earth Day, an international movement focused on climate change.

The board hammered the final nail into the coffin of the controversial program, which aimed to bring curbside service to Langley and unincorporated areas of Whidbey Island, in a 2-1 vote Monday in Coupeville.

Republican commissioners Kelly Emerson and Jill Johnson voted to end the planned service while Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, a Democrat, voted against the motion.

The decision effectively rescinded the ordinance the board adopted this past December when two Democrats controlled the panel. The move was made after Angie Homola was defeated by Johnson in the November election, but before she left office.

Monday’s public hearing and the subsequent vote took place at the board’s first regularly scheduled evening meeting. The attending crowd of more than 50 people seemed slightly weighted toward those in support of the curbside proposal and many were not happy with the board’s decision.

“Shame on you,” chanted Coupeville resident Paula Spina loudly, moments after the vote.

Although the meeting was not yet finished, the mantra was picked up by others in the room. Added to an existing roar of voice, they drowned out any possibility of further action. Even when the room was finally cleared, heated discussion among those on opposite sides of the issue continued in the halls outside.

Curbside recycling was a discussion for the past five years. A previous board nearly moved forward with a program in 2007, holding several community meetings, but aspects of the plan proved unpopular. It was mandatory for existing Island Disposal customers and the hauler would not accept glass. Attempts to find another hauler were unsuccessful and the plan was shelved for several years while the county looked for alternatives.

In 2012, the county once again sought willing haulers but Island Disposal was the sole company to respond. It submitted a plan nearly identical to the one pitched years before but, at an estimated $11.60 a month, it was almost twice as expensive as the $6.40 rate that was proposed in 2007. 

Once again, glass was not accepted and curbside service would be contingent on subscription to trash pickup. The plan did not force the public to become an Island Disposal customer, but anyone who does pay for the hauler’s trash service would also have to pay for recycling.

In December, the Democrat-dominated board ended the long debate by passing an ordinance that required Island Disposal, the county’s franchised hauler, to roll out the program this year.

The dust had hardly settled, however, when the new Republican-led board agreed to begin the process to rescind the ordinance this past January, bringing the matter back into the public limelight.

Monday’s meeting saw more than two-hours of public testimony but few new arguments. Rehashing the same issues that were debated for years, some complained about the service’s shortcomings while others argued its benefits.

“This forces an urban service into a rural area,” said Ray Gabelein, a Freeland resident.

“It doesn’t make sense.”

Many opponents to the curbside program said they were avid recyclers but felt the program was too expensive, was inadequate, and went too far.

“I don’t want government telling me what to do at every single level,” echoed Pam Neschke, also of Freeland.

The other side voiced equally passionate arguments, most notably from Oak Harbor High School’s Ecology Club. The small group of teens took to the microphone and urged the board not to rescind the ordinance and be an example for the next generation.

“If they see from the adults in the community that recycling isn’t a priority, it won’t be a priority to them,” said 16-year-old Reilly Richards, the club’s secretary.

Similarly, Carol Dawes said she lives on a fixed income and would happily pay the extra $11.60 to cover the cost of the curbside program.

“I’m willing to pay whatever I need to pay in order to take care of this planet and this county,” she said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson maintained her December position, advocating on behalf of the adopted but never implemented curbside program.

“I try to make decisions my grandkids can be proud of,” Price Johnson said. “I think it is the right thing to do.”

The arguments were not enough to sway her Republican colleagues. Emerson said she remains “not convinced” that recycling statistics provided by Public Works officials are accurate and that the program would actually reduce the county’s carbon footprint. Also, the exclusion of glass is too large a shortcoming to ignore, she said.

Alternatively, Johnson said she accepted the county’s statistics and thanked department officials for preparing the complicated and controversial proposal. But she would not consent to a program that mandates the participation of Island Disposal customers and removes the financial risk of a private business with public tax dollars.

“I hope the students who felt they were learning a lesson in the value of recycling also learned a lesson in the value of economics,” Johnson said.

“My personal belief is we’re just not ready to move this forward,” she said.

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