Steve Marcus / FILE
Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
How Clark County compares
2-3% — Residential recycling rate in Clark County
16% — Curbside recycling rate in New York City
53% — Recycling rate in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle
Having just beaten back the push by the county’s trash hauler to add a surcharge to garbage bills, a county commissioner now plans to spur Republic Services to speed up the revamping of its recycling program.
Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is renewing the call to “get rid of the tiny red, white and blue plastic bins, recycle them, and give every household a single large bin.”
The big bin system has, by all accounts, worked well in local pilot programs. It is easier for people to recycle if they don’t have to separate the various types of recyclables. So, Giunchigliani plans to introduce a proposal next month to switch to the one-bin system countywide. Making the change doesn’t mean reopening the contract or franchise agreement with Republic Services, she added. Because in 2006 the county used an ordinance change to let Republic Services charge homeowners fees for more than one home, even if one of those homes was unoccupied, Giunchigliani figures she can also use an ordinance change to force Republic to switch to single-stream recycling, as the one-bin system is called.
Republic wants to go to single-stream because it goes hand-in-hand with trucks that use a hydraulic arm to lift and dump the specially designed bins. Those trucks have the potential to cut Republic’s labor costs and on-the-job injuries. And the same system can be used for all garbage collection — and is in many other cities.
That may explain why Bob Coyle, area president for Republic Services, remains gung-ho on recycling even though the bottom has dropped out of the recycling market.
He started beating the drum on recycling back in 2005. But when the public realized his plan for weekly collection of recycling was going to result in either once-a-week garbage collection, instead of twice a week, or an increase in garbage bills, the outcry sent Coyle back to the drawing board.
Giunchigliani knows that most county residents remain opposed to any increase in their garbage bills, particularly in these tough economic times. Still, she wants not only the one-bin system, but weekly collection of recyclables and twice-weekly garbage pickup — with no increase in customers’ bills for it.
That’s where the whole “let’s get greener” movement gets tripped up, by the money questions.
If Republic is required to continue to pick up trash twice a week alongside weekly recycling, “there could be an increase in cost (to customers),” the company’s spokeswoman, Michele Voelkening, said.
The “more expenses” argument doesn’t elicit much sympathy from Giunchigliani. She points to compensation packages given to top employees as part of a proposed $5 billion merger between Republic Services and Allied Waste Industries.
“If they can afford to give themselves $100 million-plus in bonuses, they can pay a little more to improve recycling,” Giunchigliani said.
With more than a little disdain, she also criticized Republic Services’ management of a recycling program that has done little to spur residential participation. A 1995 audit showed that between Oct. 1, 1994, and Sept. 30, 1995, Silver State Disposal, which later merged with Republic Services, sold 55,000 tons of recyclables. But 13 years later in 2007, despite the huge increase in Clark County’s population, Republic Services collected about 44,000 tons of recyclables, and the amount sold was likely less, Voelkening said.
Although Republic Services boasts that overall recycling in Clark County is in the high teens, residential recycling hovers at a lowly 2-3 percent.
“It’s bad,” said Don Burnette, Clark County chief administrative officer.
The valley’s cities don’t get close to the rates of some other municipalities.
New York City reported last year a curbside recycling rate of 16 percent; and last month, King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, reported a rate of 53 percent.
Southern Nevada doesn’t have the “it saves precious space in the nearly full landfill” financial motivation that other places have driving recycling because the 2,200-acre Apex landfill, the largest in the country, is big enough to last another 200 years, officials say. Republic can stack the garbage there all the way up to the tops of the surrounding mountains,
“We have to look down the road,” Giunchigliani said. “100 years, 200 years, it’s still going to cost a lot of money some day to find another landfill. And this isn’t just about time, it’s about doing what’s right.”
Coyle says on that point he agrees with the county commissioner. And to try to boost recycling rates he and Giunchigliani are talking about rewards for recyclers.
Coyle is against giving people deductions from their trash bills but likes the idea of rewarding neighborhoods with coupons for “10 percent off at Starbucks or something.” The number of coupons would be tied to the tonnage of recyclables collected. Giunchigliani suggested customers being able to donate savings to charity.
Increasing the rate of recycling in Southern Nevada has been a goal for at least 17 years. In 1991, the Nevada Legislature set a recycling goal of 25 percent for all communities in the state. That percent included recyclables from industry and construction, not just residential customers.
But it was just a goal, not a mandate.
As county commissioners and Republic Services came to a stalemate a couple of years ago over competing ideas aimed at increasing recycling, the county’s short-term solution was to commission the three pilot programs. One at Nellis Air Force Base started about a year ago; two at Rhodes Ranch, in the southwest near Interstate 215 and Durango Drive, began in July. The recycling rates in those areas is now 18 percent to 25 percent, Coyle said.
After the pilot programs have been running for about a year, an outside accounting firm is to analyze the costs and benefits of each. That won’t be until July 2009, however.
“It’s premature to talk about fees when the pilot program isn’t done and we haven’t analyzed anything yet,” Republic’s spokeswoman said.
Maybe that’s another reason Giunchigliani doesn’t want to wait for that report.
“We’ve never even gotten 10 percent (residential recycling) and we’re close to 2 percent now,” she said. “And it benefits (Republic), they make money on it — maybe not as much now, but they implemented a plan 10 years ago and it has not been changed since then. We don’t need pilots to tell us what to do. It’s done all over the world, for heaven’s sake.”
And if Republic Services starts talking about how much more it will cost because of the mechanized trucks they’ll have to buy, Giunchigliani figures that argument is weakened by the fact that the company has been replacing its fleet with the trucks for a few years now.
Voelkening said the company spent about $2 million in 2006 on equipment that helps laborers separate recyclables. They have also purchased trucks designed to work with the large single-bin garbage cans. However, she added, the trucks used for regular trash would not be used for recycling — recycling trucks would be in use constantly if the county goes to once-a-week recycling pickup — so more trucks for recycling would need to be purchased.
Republic Services would also spend $150 per household for two large bins, one for trash, one for recycling. “It would take a long, long time to recoup those costs,” she said.
One thing Republic is not trying to use as leverage — so far, at least — is the drop in the recycling market. In some parts of the country, companies are even paying, instead of receiving payment, to have their recyclables hauled away.
Coyle did point out that Republic makes “no money” on recycling.
“It is not a high-value commodity by any stretch ... but we are still able to get rid of all the materials that we are recycling,” he said. Some recyclables, like glass, have been given away to a processor for the cost of carting them off, Voelkening said.
Republic will not store recyclables as some communities are doing, hoping the price goes up, Coyle said, “because the prices will never come back fast enough to get the storage cost out of it.”