The trash carts are coming to get you, Barbara..."
--Night of the Living Dead
Many are as terrified as a pin-curled scream-queen in a black and white monster flick over changes in Tulsa's trash contracts.
Much ado has been made about trash. The final city council debate held Oct. 28 focused heavily on voters' anxiety about trash.
The city council attempted to revoke the powers of the Tulsa Authority on the Recovery of Energy (TARE) board -- the board all about trash. Then Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. vetoed the council's revocation.
At the Nov. 3 council meeting, they held a vote to overturn Bartlett's veto but the motion didn't pass. Six votes are required to reverse a mayoral veto, and only five councilors voted in favor of an overturn.
So for now, the TARE board is back to talkin' trash. Once the board makes a decision about new contractors, the city council will approve a new rate structure for services.
UTW sat down with the city of Tulsa's Andrew Huggins (solid waste superintendent), Eric Lee (solid waste manager) and Kim MacLeod (in the mayor's communication department) to get the nitty-gritty truth about what's going on, what's in the works and why you shouldn't freak out about trash.
Below, we offer you our specially curated top 10 fun facts about trash!
1. We've Come a Long Way, Baby
It's important to know just how long Tulsa's current trash contract has been in place: 32 years. Whether you love the current service or not, three decades is a long time for a city to be bound by exclusive contract to any vendor without putting those services out for competitive bidding.
Since the city of Tulsa inked this contract, the world has changed. The trash contract has weathered six presidential administrations; the same vendors responsible for grabbing our garbage through the political uproar over trickle-down Reaganomics are still at our curbside during today's outrage over Obamacare and socialism; they've been at our curbside from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the current American occupation of Afghanistan.
Though the world around us has changed, our trash contracts have not. Some find this comforting, others think it's time for a change.
2. It's the Law
The long-term contract with the city's private hauler expires on June 30, 2012. Like it or not, the law requires the TARE board to send out a new contract for competitive bidding. After three decades, it's time to see what the rest of the trash world can offer our city.
Lee said citizens are upset because they think "the city is forcing the current hauler out and not giving them an opportunity to bid."
Not true, Lee said. TRI has the same chance as any other bidder to win a new contract. "This falls under state law," and is not a response against a perceived flaw in TRI's service.
3. Familiarity, the Enemy of Change
About 80 percent of Tulsans have their trash hauled by the private contractor who's been in place for 32 years. However, the other 20 percent -- a section of the city in the northwest quadrant -- get their trash service through the city of Tulsa. They have trash carts and once-a-week service provided through city haulers.
People in the once-a-week service district reported a high level of satisfaction, according to a survey conducted by the TARE board.
Familiarity is what people are fighting for in the battle over trash. No one wants a change in their normal routines, even if the changes may be positive in the long run.
4. Pay As You Throw
A big concern, alongside worries of (the horror!) once-a-week trash pick-up, is a volume-based pricing system. As it stands now, you can put out bags and bags of garbage to your heart's content and TRI will pick it up at no extra charge.
However, the new contractor will likely charge Tulsans for those added bags.
"Everything [the task force] heard led to the report to TARE that a volume-based system or pay-as-you-throw" was the way to go, MacLeod said.
Pay-as-you-throw would be "like water or electricity," said Lee. "You pay for what you use." Right now, we are charged a flat rate for unlimited waste.
"Under a new system, you can set out unlimited [trash], but pay per bag," Lee said.
The new rates are not set yet, clarified MacLeod.
With volume-based charges, you'll only be charged for bulky waste requests when you need them. Currently, the cost of removing bulky wastes -- that avocado-green refrigerator or that stained couch you need to ditch -- is rolled into everyone's bill.
Now, you'll only be charged for what you use. "One guy may have 37 bulky waste requests, but you've never used the service," said Lee. "Why should you have to pay for that other person? It'll be a true pay-as-you-throw system."
5. Years of Input
Though changes in Tulsa's trash contracts have only been in the spotlight for the past few months, the TARE board has worked behind the scenes for years.
In 2009, the Refuse and Recycling Task Force came together with an independent consultant brought in by the city to search out "best practices," said MacLeod.
The task force talked to people and gathered input from meetings held in each city council district, said MacLeod. "Each council aide said they thought it was one of the best turnouts ever," MacLeod said.
Shepherd Research was hired to do some polling and roundtables.
6. New Trash Carts
Right now, Tulsans are on their own when it comes to trash cans. You can either buy one or put trash bags to the curb unprotected, though there are drawbacks to both of these scenarios.
If your purchased trash can is damaged or stolen, you must replace it or go without. If you put your bags on the curb, raccoons, dogs or cats (or anything else) can tear into the bags before refuse crews come by your neighborhood. Cleaning up after a hungry raccoon has chewed through Hefty bags full of old McDonald's wrappers and rancid leftovers is an unpleasant task to say the least.
According to the TARE board's bid specifications, the new contractor will provide heavy-duty bins in three sizes with sturdy wheels, flip-top lids and plenty of space for several overstuffed bags.
About three months before the new trash contracts begin next July, carts will start being delivered to houses around town. Each house will get one cart for recycling and one for refuse.
The trash carts come in three sizes, 95, 65 and 35 gallons, with a rate structure to match. Smaller carts equal smaller monthly refuse fees.
Elderly or disabled Tulsans can get the smaller-sized carts, and the program for picking up refuse close to the house for qualifying people will remain.
7. Going Green
The current curbside recycling system started in 1999 under former Mayor Susan Savage. In its first year, the subscription recycling service had about 4,500 customers, MacLeod said.
For several years, subscribers numbered 8,000. However, over the last four years, the program "has seen significant growth and we now have 15,500 customers," MacLeoad said. "About 1 in 7.6 houses participate in a curbside program."
In city council districts 8 and 9, that number is even higher. About 20 percent, or 1 in 5 houses, participate in recycling in those areas.
Under the current system, Tulsans who use the curbside recycling program pay an extra $2 per month for the service and recycling pick-up is offered on different days than customers' normal trash days.
While a curbside recycler's trash bill costs more, they contribute less waste than their non-recycling counterparts.
According to the TARE board's bid specifications, the new contract would require the private hauler to roll out recycling citywide. While no one has to recycle, new recycling carts will be delivered to every household. Plus, the recycling will be picked up on the same day as the trash to streamline the process of pick-up.
"We're not forcing people to recycle," Lee said. "It will be available if you want to reduce your household waste."
In general, "about 80 percent of our household waste is recyclable," Huggins said.
Besides, has anyone heard a meaningful argument against recycling?
8. Cleaning Up Our Air Act
In addition to folding a recycling program into Tulsa trash pick-up, the winning bidder will be required to phase in CNG trucks for their fleet of dump trucks. CNG stands for compressed natural gas, a cleaner burning fuel that reduces emissions.
Tulsa has come close to exceeding EPA air quality standards. "We need to do what we can now to clean up our air so that we avoid the effects of being on a dirty air list, which would have a negative impact on the cost of doing business in Tulsa," according to the fact sheet penned MacLeod.
Under the new contracts, the winning bidder will "be required to make that switchover [to CNG]," MacLeod said. By Sept. 1, 2012, 50 percent of the trash hauling vehicles must run on CNG, and the other half must be switched over to CNG by July 1, 2013.
9. A Dangerous Job
Collecting trash is the seventh most dangerous job in the nation, according to Lee. So the new contracts will require uniforms -- brightly colored, reflective ones -- to help drivers avoid hitting Tulsa's team of hard-working refuse collectors.
The uniforms "have the potential to reduce possible accidents," Lee said, especially on busy arterial streets.
Plus, the uniforms will immediately identify a person at a glance, said Huggins.
The city of Tulsa refuse crews have "done it for years and years," Huggins said. "I think the uniforms are nice. And you can easily identify the worker who was really nice...or rude."
"They're in your neighborhood every week picking up refuse. It's good to know who's in your neighborhood," MacLeod said.
10. Where We're Going From Here
Right now, the TARE board is sifting through the submitted bids. Once they award a new 10-year contract, the mayor must sign off on it, said MacLeod.
The announcement of the winning bidder hasn't been announced yet because of the amount of bids and number of documents to investigate, said Michelle Allen, city of Tulsa senior marketing and media relations officer.
"By first of the year we'll know who the contractor is and they'll begin educating" the public on what type of system will be put in place, said MacLeod.
Around February or so, Tulsans will find out their new service dates that begin in July, when they should expect their new carts, and how bulky waste and extra bags will be handled.
Hold onto your trash bags, Tulsa, we're in for a bumpy ride!
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