POSTED ON AUGUST 25, 2010:
Paying to be Green
City's unique character challenges recycling business
The City of Tulsa plans to step up educating curbside recycling participants in an effort to continue decreasing the number of complaints over the recycling service.
"Day of service education will be needed forever," said Michael Patton, executive director for The Metropolitan Environmental Trust and member of the city's refuse and recycling task force. "The old service was twice a month and the new service is every other week. Which is easier to remember?"
After RR Waste Solutions began recycling pickup in June for the more than 14,000 participants in Tulsa, the city heard approximately 56 complaints per day in June followed by about 40 per day in July.
In late July, the city's trash board told the company to cut these numbers of complaints or have its $1.3 million contract thrown out with the garbage. As of Aug. 13, participants' complaints had decreased to almost 20 per day throughout the month, said Eric Lee, field customer services manager for the city's Public Works Department.
"Now, the complaint levels are down below 15 per day and they average 1,400 service stops per day," Patton said. "Any complaint is a problem, but 1 percent is acceptable to me."
The majority of these complaints stemmed from customers not having their recycling bins picked up and emptied. RR Waste Solutions fought their own difficulties while customers adjusted to a new curbside pickup schedule, Lee said.
To help alleviate the latter part of the problem, the city and RR Waste Solutions' IT departments are in the process of creating a digital map that would allow recycling participants to search and find when their service days are during the month. The Web page, which would be a part of the cityoftulsa.org website, could be similar to the city councilors' page that allows people to put in their address to learn which district they fall under and which city councilor represents them, said David Cooper, RR Waste Solutions' vice president of marketing.
Until then, participants will receive a letter in the mail to remind them what days they should place their green recycling bins on the curb, Lee said.
Cooper said he speculates that while some of the complaints of missed pickups were caused by drivers getting accustomed to their new routes in the city, others were not missed at all.
With customers unsure of service days, some place recycling bins on the curb after the truck has already driven through the neighborhood. In mid-July, the company installed a GPS system in each truck to help determine if trucks had already traveled through the area where the complaint derived.
"We can verify an address and the service day and bounce it off the GPS," he said. "It leaves a bread crumb trail to know if the truck has been through the neighborhood."
Other changes have been made since the company with offices in Texas and Oklahoma began services in Tulsa. Part of that was getting used to driving more than 120 miles, while picking up bins at 700 houses per truck. For drivers, this means driving down several streets that only have one participant and others without any bins on the curb at all, Cooper said.
With RR Waste Solutions providing its services to many cities throughout the country, Cooper said Tulsa has come with an additional challenge the company has not experienced before.
"Tulsa is the only city of its size (RR Waste Solutions does business with) that has a subscription recycling service," he said. "It's not the ideal type of recycling service. Whoever raises their hand participates. Most cities, there's no additional charge for recycling.
"We provide both (garbage and recycling) services at other cities. There's more of a continuity of service."
Patton said he sees the city's subscription service, in which residents must pay an additional $2 per month to participate, as a barrier against gaining more participants.
"Not only are citizens required to pay extra for curbside collection of recyclables, but they have to know to ask the city to subscribe," he said. "Interestingly, when the city began to charge an EMSA ambulance fee onto the bill, they did it the other way. Everyone is charged unless they go out of their way to unsubscribe."
Although the company's first few months were filled with difficulties, Patton said the focus on the city's current recycling program could be good for Tulsa's future.
"Never give controversy a bad name," he said. "All these complaints have been heard by the mayor and city councilors. I think prior to this summer, most of them thought that recycling wasn't that important. Now, the elected officials know that many of their constituents think recycling is very important. This should help us go to the next level."
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