By Jerry Mingo
Passage of the curbside recycling ordinance is generating discussion and even interest in rescinding the new county code. It is useful to consider the current system.
Let’s first understand why curbside recycling has been proposed. Reliance on recycle centers without a curbside program produces an expected recycling rate of 32 percent, below the nation’s 34 percent and statewide 50 percent. Jurisdictions with combined trash and recycle service have rates from 40 to 45 percent, and those with aggressive mandatory programs that collect from the harder-to-get sources recover 50 or 60 percent of the waste stream. By state mandate, solid waste disposal is a priority after waste prevention, reuse and recycling and is accordingly curbside recycling is prescribed in the county’s solid waste management plan.
Whidbey Island is surrounded by counties with access to curbside recycling, including San Jan County, where curbside recycling was preferred over a new transfer station. Skagit County has opened such a new transfer station at an eye-popping $18 million. While we operate well within the capacity of Island County’s transfer station, the recovery of more recyclables will extend the infrastructure and delay expensive expansions.
The curbside ordinance has been called “mandatory.” Residents of the city of Oak Harbor and town of Coupeville are required to receive and pay for trash and recyclables collection, services also automatically provided to residents of naval base housing. Those families are not affected by the new ordinance. By contrast residents of Whidbey Island living outside of those areas can continue to electively subscribe to trash and recycle service.
The option to subscribe separately to trash and or recycling was carefully considered but discarded as expensive and ineffective. The estimated price of such separate recycle subscription, $22 per month, was over twice that found in similar programs across the state. Participation in those separate subscription areas range from 20 to 40 percent. Comparatively the estimated $11 per month for the adopted recycle service is within the range of similar systems in the state, and participation is typically 95 percent. Trash service customers not presently recycling stand to decrease that added cost by downsizing trash service to reflect those newly diverted
recyclables. Nationally we’ve found that separate subscription programs increase the recycle rate over self-haul-only recycling by 3 percentage points, while programs that combine trash with recycling service increase recovery by up to 14 points.
Some note that their trash is picked up and recyclables are self-hauled for “free.” In fact Island County pays its contract recycler $60 per ton for household recyclables collected at its recycle parks. The contractor’s revenue is supplemented when delivering the goods to market. After payroll, fuel, insurance, business taxes and equipment costs, some profit is made. Recycling costs the county money, but less than the cost of disposing of trash at $115 per ton.
The county collects $4.49 from each vehicle delivering trash to a transfer station, which is used to pay to the contract recycler. This common arrangement encourages residents to recycle by reducing the amount paid through the trash tipping fee. This means that those self-hauling trash pay the cost of the drop box recycle system, and those with collection service pay 1/400th to 1/500th of the cost as route trucks collect trash from 400 to 500 homes and then pay the same $4.49 at the scale. We note that some residents self-hauling trash do so every other week or even weekly; that’s $8.98 or $17.96 paid monthly for all to access the recycle parks.
To review: Recycling is not free, it costs the county less than trash disposal, the county does not make money on recycling, and the cost of recycling is covered by self-haulers of trash.
There is disappointment that curbside recycling doesn’t include container glass. The state-coordinated “Beyond the Curb” study by recycling professionals lists separate glass handling as a best management practice. It was found that glass shards lower the market value of recovered paper and plastics by damaging machinery; that China increasingly sources domestic waste paper and plastics resulting in decreased demand and increased standards for imported feedstocks. Material brokers are beginning to prefer waste paper from the Mideast, as that from the Pacific Northwest gains a reputation for glass contamination; offshore buyers have warned that contaminated loads will be refused at the dock. These issues compound previous challenges of low-to-negative value, weight and expense of shipping container glass. Recycling glass nets the least energy savings, 2.7 million BTU’s per ton, of all of the household recyclables. Island County will continue to collect glass at its recycle parks.
Some challenge the efficiency of large collection trucks relative to individuals delivering recyclables to recycle centers. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Reduction Model (WARM) is a management tool created to compare handling methods for waste and recyclables, and is based on a lifecycle analysis by material and distances traveled. This compares energy used for refinement of materials from natural resource with the recycling of materials from the waste stream. When the United States’ recycling rate increases from 28 to 34 percent, 900 trillion BTU’s are saved, the equivalent of 156 billion gallons of oil or removing nearly 4 million passenger vehicles from the roadway each year. These considerations are reflected in the WARM calculator, which has also revealed that curbside recycling results in the largest greenhouse gas reduction identified locally.
As the curbside ordinance is now being revisited and will possibly be rescinded, we hope that the Board of Island County Commissioners will hear from constituents. As the ordinance has passed, supporters may be unaware that those not wanting the program are making themselves heard.
Jerry Mingo lives in Port Townsend