POSTED ON JUNE 30, 2010:
As complaints about recycling mount, Tulsa investigates a better system
As a second round of complaints about the city's new recycling contractor comes in, the city-appointed task force continues to look into ways to better Tulsa's refuse and recycling system.
"Trash and recycling are hot topics for Tulsans," said Ben Collins, board member for the Tulsa Master Recyclers organization and member of the city's refuse and recycling task force. "I'm surprised ... how many people want to expand our recycling system, but people want a functioning routine that works with their lives."
The current refuse contract has been the city's working contract for 30 years. In 1999, the city began offering curbside recycling services for an additional fee of $2 per month. In April, the company contracted for recyclable curbside pickup was switched over to RR Waste Solutions, and after one month of pickups, the city has been receiving complaints from customers saying their bins were never emptied.
Participation in the recycling program jumped from approximately 8,000 customers in 2006 to approximately 14,000 this past May.
With about 116,000 residential refuse customers in Tulsa, that means about 12 percent of the total customers take part in the program compared to the EPA's data showing an average of 32 percent of people who recycle nationally. However, some say the number of Tulsans participating is low due to the additional fee for this service, the size of the bins and the number of pickups per month.
"It's way too easy to dump everything by the curb and not give it a second thought," said Diana Askins, president of Tulsa Master Recyclers, an organization dedicated to educating others about recycling. "I think a lot of it is absence of convenience for recycling."
The task force, which was created in 2009, will make recommendations to the City Council and the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy board in September. With the 30-year-old waste management contract set to expire in 2012, the refuse and recycling task force is looking to keep costs of services low.
Although recyclable materials can be sold and reused, recycling is not necessarily the most cost-effective way to dispose of trash in Tulsa, said Eric Lee, field customer services manager for the city's Public Works Department.
"Tulsa's disposal rates are near the lowest in the nation, if not the lowest, at $12.00 per ton," he said. "Depending on the cost to process recyclables, it may be cheaper to landfill solid waste or process it as energy-from-waste than to recycle. Conversely, on the East Coast or West Coast, landfill space is at a premium and disposal costs are much higher. Recycling costs less so there is a financial benefit to recycling. Regardless of the economics here in the Midwest, there appears to be a very strong desire by the community to recycle."
Michael Patton, executive director for The Metropolitan Environmental Trust and task force member, said there are ways to cut costs within the dated contract.
"If Tulsa makes no changes, trash rates will go up 25 percent to 50 percent, from 14 bucks a month to 18 or 20 bucks a month," he said. "We've had twice a week trash service since 1979, and no one in the country does that anymore hardly. It's stupid to have twice-a-week service -- no one needs it. If Fort Smith and Forth Worth can have once-a-week trash, Tulsans can. Our trash can't stink anymore than theirs."
But many Tulsans are hesitant to change, Collins said. At town hall meetings, many people voiced they would like to keep the luxury of a twice-a-week service.
But Collins noticed, while researching other cities' refuse programs, that the majority of the 50 largest cities in the country use a once-a-week pickup.
One part of the current contract that has resulted in cheap trash disposal is the contract with the Walter B. Hall Resource Recovery Facility. The energy-from-waste facility burns the city's trash, and this "energy recovery is also considered a form of recycling," Lee said.
"The current cost is $12.00 per ton and depending on the recyclable materials being processed may be cheaper than recycling."
Many of the cities that the task force researched also use an automation system, which incorporate standardized bins where an "arm" can be retrofitted to pick up trash.
"That is a really great plan because it lowers the cost for residents," he said. "The highest contributing cost for the municipal trash system is worker's comp. By eliminating the need for men to get off the truck to pick up heavy things all day is awesome."
Patton said with the new contract, recycling should be included in the same bill as the refuse bill, rather than keeping it as an optional add-on.
"Usually (in other cities), it's all in the same bill," he said. "The fact that Tulsa separated it and made you sign it separate and charges you $2 really pisses people off."
One system the task force has studied is a pay-as-you-throw system. Low-producers of trash would be charged less, much like other utility bills, Collins said.
"It's a way to bring that pay structure in line with everything else," he said.
The city would have to decide what size the bins would be and how many bins citizens would receive -- possibly one for recyclables, one for trash and one for yard waste. Currently, those who sign up for the recycling program get one 18-gallon bin for recyclables.
Fort Worth had a system similar to Tulsa's about 10 years ago. Today, the city in Texas uses the pay-as-you-throw system. The percent of households that recycle increased from 21 to 85 percent, with 92 percent of households paying less than before the system changed.
Durham, N.C., is highly rated for its refuse and recycling system. In 2008, the city began a new curbside recycling collection program. Citizens use 96-gallon tubs for recycling, and the city does pickups every other week.
"Prior to 2008, our city-wide program was collected by a private company and used 18-gallon bins, and our participation rate was around 52 percent," said Donald Long, the Durham's city director of solid waste management. "Once we went to every other week and the 96-gallon carts, participation rates swelled to approximately 90 percent. We started using our own workforce for collections and saved $500,000. The additional participation created a savings of $134,000 in diversion (no longer paying tipping fees to dispose in a landfill)."
Although many cities have already implemented recycling systems as a major piece of the refuse program, Patton said Tulsa seems to be behind on the green movement because unlike other areas, Tulsa has never run into a trash crisis.
"You can't leave town without driving by a landfill," he said. "Kansas, Arkansas and Texas trash comes to Oklahoma. We have landfills everywhere, but they're far enough away where people don't have to see them. Other states don't have enough land to do that."
Regardless of the extra cost, some Tulsans already use the curbside recycling system regularly. April Woodul has been an avid recycler her whole life. Before she began carrying her green tubs out to the curb, she used to load up her recyclables and take them to a site at the nearby Piggly Wiggly. But Woodul hopes changes will be made, like bigger bins and more frequent pickups, to make it easier for others to join the recycling movement.
"If we're going to be consumers, we need to do it responsibly," she said.
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