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September 16, 2014

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Why Southern Nevada stinks at recycling

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L.E. Baskow

Food waste is collected at the Bellagio loading dock Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. It will be repurposed to feed livestock and make compost.

Environmentally conscious Strip resort managers brag how corks from wine bottles are recycled into shoe soles and cooking oil is converted into biodiesel. Filters from cigarette butts at some casinos are reused to make plastic pallets.

Such attention to recycling even the smallest items distinguishes the Strip from the rest of Las Vegas when it comes to conservation. Strip resorts are the county’s champion recyclers, far outpacing residents and other businesses.

Republic Services does not accept

• Light bulbs

• Hardcover books

• Wrapping paper

• Waxed paper

• Window glass

• Plastic grocery bags

• Aluminum foil

• Plastics labeled No. 3 or higher

* Dirty and food-stained items may not be accepted because they can contaminate recycling equipment.

Republic Services accepts

• Cardboard

• Plain paper

• Newspaper

• Magazines

• Glass bottles

• Aluminum or metal cans

• Plastic containers labeled Nos. 1 or 2 or with a neck, such as water and soda bottles.

Republic Services Recycling and Landfill

Jerry Bates starts his route with clean windows as a driver with the Republic Services recycling truck on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.  L.E. Baskow Launch slideshow »

What happens to your recyclables?

1. You dump a plastic water bottle or aluminum can into a recycling bin. A garbage truck takes it, and thousands of other recyclables, to Republic Services’ recycling plant on Gowan Road in North Las Vegas.

2. The truck dumps its load onto the warehouse floor, where front-loaders move the waste onto four-foot wide conveyor belts that wind through the facility as workers and machines sort items.

3. Aluminum and plastic are separated by a magnet, which grabs the aluminum and sends it down one chute, while the plastic moves down a different chute. An optical scanner determines the density of each piece of plastic in about a tenth of a second. An air blower separates lighter paper from heavier paper.

4. Once the aluminum, plastics, paper, cardboard and glass have been separated, everything but glass is baled into 3-foot-by-5-foot cubes.

5. These tidy packages are sold to distributors, who typically ship the bales to China out of Long Beach or another West Coast port. Items that can’t be recycled are set aside and redirected to the landfill.

6. Republic Services sold its recyclables for $4.3 million in 2010, $8.3 million in 2011 and $6 million in 2012, despite the total tonnage remaining relatively flat. The value of recycled materials fluctuates depending on the volatile commodities market.

About Apex Landfill

• Apex is open 24/7.

• The landfill accepts 7,500 tons of garbage a day, or 300 tons of garbage every hour.

• Apex currently holds 60 million tons of trash.

• Apex was one of the first landfills in the country built in accordance with stricter federal standards that called for new operation and design standards, groundwater monitoring, an environmental contamination contingency plan and a decommissioning plan.

• The land was excavated to create more space and level the terrain; a clay liner was laid down, followed by a 60-mm plastic liner, then a layer of dirt. A network of pipes captures liquids produced in the decomposition process.

• Tipping fees at Apex are $32.55 a ton, well below the national average of $45.

• The landfill is subdivided. Garbage is added incrementally to one area at a time, which gets capped when full. The subdivision being used now is expected to max out in about 20 years, at which point operations will shift to another portion of the site. The landfill has an expected lifespan of 200 years.

• 300 acres of 2,200 available acres are developed.

• 1,900 acres are permitted for landfill.

• 3 acres at a time are open landfill, easily spotted by the sparrows and ravens that survey the area.

What they're doing

• San Francisco (80 percent) leads the United States in recycling its solid waste. The city requires residents to compost and recycle, a policy backed by extensive outreach, and when necessary, fines and property liens. The city has banned plastic bags and restricted the sale of plastic water bottles. Construction waste and debris must be taken to registered facilities for recycling.

• Belgium (58 percent). The Flemish region of Belgium is a world leader in recycling. More rare, it is growing economically while still reducing the amount of waste it generates. The country has a pay-as-you-throw program that treats trash like a utility; households pay a variable rate depending on the amount of service they use.

• Germany. Residents of Neustadt an der Weinstrasse take recycling so seriously, they recycle dead animals. There’s a bin for carcasses at the recycling center. The fat is rendered for soap and lip balm. The town has the best recycling rate in Germany, reusing 70 percent of its waste. There’s no landfill, and pickup of recyclables is free for residents.

• Sweden (49 percent) is so good at recycling household trash that it needs other countries to donate garbage. Sweden uses incinerated waste to power the vast majority of homes. The country was so efficient with the process, it ran out of garbage in 2012. Luckily, neighboring Norway stepped in to help. It exports 80,000 tons of garbage to Sweden annually.

• Mexico (12 percent). In 2011, government officials closed the city dump. Illegal dumping sites sprang up and neighboring cities refused to process the trash. So officials came up with a plan to cut back on waste: trade recyclables for food. Government officials swap vegetables for cans, bottles and electronics, then sell the materials to recyclers.

• Rome, once among the dirtiest European cities in terms of trash, is bolstering recycling efforts in part by assigning huge fines to garbage scofflaws. Leave dog poop in a public plaza and expect to pay a fine upward of $400. Mix trash in with recyclables and pay a fine of more than $800.

• Brazil (2 percent)l, despite a paltry overall recycling rate due to a lack of garbage service in much of the country, has a stellar record for recycling aluminum. More than 96 percent of cans get recycled. Why? About 200,000 Brazilians make their living collecting cans. Companies save money not having to use virgin materials, and the can collectors earn a salary.

Composting

Composting isn’t offered in the valley on a large scale because our climate is too dry to promote decomposition, and large amounts of water would have to be added to kickstart the process. But home gardeners and environmentalists have embraced composting on a small scale for its benefits to the earth and their gardens. According to Jack Macy, director of San Francisco’s zero-waste program, “various studies have shown that the best, fastest and cheapest way to reduce your climate footprint is to recycle and compost.”

1. Buy or build a bin. Manufacturers sell tiny countertop models, large backyard setups and just about every size in between. Or start a pile directly on the ground.

2. Fill your bin with a balanced mixture of waste. Aim for 50 percent green matter ­— grass clippings, vegetable scraps and egg shells — and 50 percent brown matter — dried palm fronds, untreated cardboard and twigs. Add each type of material in layers, and sprinkle each layer with water.

3. Water your pile as needed to keep it damp like a wrung-out sponge. It shouldn’t be wet.

4. Cover the pile to retain moisture and heat. Wood, plastic or carpet scraps all work well.

5. Turn the heap regularly, once every week or two, with a shovel or pitchfork to keep it aerated. Break up anything that is clumpy or matted.

6. Avoid composting meat, fish, bones, oil, fat, pet droppings, diapers, glossy paper and magazines, cat litter and anything made from plastic or synthetic fibers.

7. Wait for nature to do its job, and harvest your compost.

Why? A contrary strategy is playing out, one that explains the region’s half-hearted recycling effort: The company that collects our trash owns the biggest landfill in the nation and receives little financial incentive to keep garbage out of it. So while Strip resorts recycle more than half their solid waste, about 90 percent of the county’s residential garbage is buried, seemingly guilt-free, in the desert.

Over the past two decades, vast gaps have emerged between the nation’s recycling superheroes and the states and cities that have shown little motivation to recycle and reuse.

In Southern Nevada, with no tangible incentive for residents to recycle and lackluster political willpower to push for improvements, progress has been sluggish.

Furthermore, sustainability goals of the community run counter to the goals of our for-profit waste management company, Republic Services. Because it owns its own, almost-bottomless landfill and struggles to make money selling recyclables to wholesale dealers, it has little motivation to aggressively embrace recycling.

“When the casinos partner with a company to take their recyclables, they are doing it because it pencils out for them financially,” said Jane Feldman, conservation chair for the Sierra Club of Southern Nevada. “In the long term, they make money, and their recyclable materials get managed in a sustainable way. We should hold them up as a model.”

Unlike our Southwestern neighbors, Nevada has shown no serious gumption.

Consider: In 1989, California ordered officials to get recycling rates up to 50 percent within a decade or face fines. In 1991, Nevada legislators set a goal of recycling 25 percent of the state’s waste but put no punch behind the law. It finally hit the mark in 2013.

San Francisco set a goal of 75 percent waste diversion, a level the city already surpassed, and set a new goal of zero landfill waste by 2020.

Phoenix launched an initiative to recycle 40 percent of its waste and is exploring composting programs not offered in Southern Nevada. And Houston, a city that has thumbed its nose at recycling for decades, received a $1 million grant to find ways to cut back on trash going to landfills.

Clark County still is struggling to reach the statewide goal of 25 percent, 10 percent below the national average.

Why are Clark County’s households so unenthused about recycling? Lisa Skumatz, a waste management consultant, points to three shortcomings:

• Households have no financial incentive to recycle.

• We have a vast and seemingly expendable desert where a landfill is a relatively cheap undertaking.

• Most crucial, there is little political will to set recycling goals and back them with aggressive marketing campaigns.

The biggest public debate over recycling in Southern Nevada hasn’t been how to keep more waste out of the landfill but whether a streamlined recycling program would come with enough trash pickup. A majority of state residents say sustainable initiatives aren’t a high priority, and our politicians take the same stance. Even as Clark County eases into more aggressive recycling programs, politicians agree they don’t need to be rushed.

A 2010 community survey found that 59 percent of respondents wouldn’t “do what’s right for the environment” if it meant spending more time or money, even though recycling advocates say improved recycling can create jobs and conserve water, energy and natural resources. Landfills are a major producer of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.

There also is little motivation for waste management companies to increase their recycling efforts.

Republic Services tells investors that recycling initiatives are based on “customer demand, willingness to pay and return on invested capital,” but executives admit recycling efforts must be coupled with improved profits.

In 2013, just 4 percent of Republic’s $8.4 billion in revenue came from recycling. Seventeen percent came from landfill dumping fees and 77 percent came from waste collection.

Only 4.4 percent of the waste picked up in Clark County by Republic is recyclable.

“When your recycling hauler owns the landfill, it is a complete conflict of interest,” said Mitch Hedlund, head of Recycle Across America. “They make the lion’s share of their revenues from (trash collection). They are for-profit companies, and I don’t begrudge them that; they are going where the profits are. Recycling is a crippled industry.”

Residential trash collection in Clark County costs less than $15 a month, regardless of how much you toss. In San Francisco, residents are financially encouraged to sort: A 20-gallon garbage bin costs $15 a month, while a 32-gallon recycling or composting bin costs $2.

Before 2008, Republic customers had to separate paper, glass and plastic in colored crates that proved too small to be effective. Nudged by the county and three cities, Republic that year launched three pilot programs in which all recyclables went into one large bin for curbside pickup. Customers tend to prefer single-stream recycling, as it is called, because they don’t need to sort and can more easily wheel a large bin to the curb.

Republic said once-a-week pick-up showed the best results for diverting waste from landfills, with a recycling rate of 25 to 30 percent. Other schedules resulted in 15 to 20 percent recycling, Republic officials said.

Recycling efforts also often are hampered by our own sloppiness — cheese remnants in the pizza box, yogurt residue in disposable plastic cups, spaghetti sauce on the stack of newspapers.

In 2012, China, the world’s largest buyer of recyclable material, began rejecting dirty items. It sent back to America stacks of stuffed shipping containers. Recycling companies now plead with customers to keep their recyclables cleaner.

Republic worked with fast-food restaurants to train employees to keep cardboard separate from food waste. But about 10 percent of recyclables collected in Southern Nevada continues to be contaminated and sent to the landfill, said Bob Coyle, Republic’s Southern Nevada vice president of public affairs and government relations.

As local governments in Clark County adopt single-stream recycling, Republic is investing in recycling infrastructure. The company has plans for a new recycling plant in North Las Vegas, expected to open late next year, that will have more than twice the capacity of its existing facility. The center will have two lines capable of processing 70 tons of recyclables an hour, versus the 25 tons per hour processed now. Coyle said he expects the local recycling rate to climb to 35 percent once the new facility is running.

That’s an improvement, but still pales to recycling efforts elsewhere. Our politicians shrug.

“You have to walk before you run,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak said. “Composting and other programs are a big step. I think we don’t want to make things too complicated too quickly. Implementing the single-stream program across the county is great and should lead to marked improvement.”

Incentives for recycling through higher trash rates, composting programs and other initiatives have not been seriously considered.

“To their credit, the public officials have been sensitive to the rates that people pay, and that needs to be remembered in all of our decision-making,” the Sierra Club’s Feldman said. “But you can also go too far in that kind of thinking. So much of our culture in Clark County and among our elected officials has been geared toward short-term gains and growth: everything has to turn around in a few months. If you look at long-term costs and gains, you start to realize as a society that Clark County can gain by building infrastructure to make use of these materials locally. You have to look to the investment horizon.”

APEX LANDFILL

As you pass by a security booth, over weight scales and into the largest landfill in the nation, you’re greeted by a sour stench that settles deep in your nose.

It is the smell of bacilli bacteria hard at work cleaning hydrogen sulfide out of methane gas produced at the Apex Landfill.

It’s a sophisticated industrial site involving miles of pipes, water wells, a power plant, and a sand and crushed rock mine. Tucked into the mountains north of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, much of what happens at the always-open landfill is masked from the public — including the smell.

“We got a couple of odors here that are special to us,” General Manager Mark Clinker said.

Clark County bought the land from the Bureau of Land Management in 1993, and Silver State Disposal Service, which later was sold to Republic Services, bought the land from the county for $2.2 million.

“You have to give the state, the county and the company a lot of credit for having the vision to get a long-term site in Clark County,” Clinker said. “It’s a preferable place for a landfill for a lot of reasons. It’s 20 miles from town in an isolated mountain range where the water doesn’t drain elsewhere and the groundwater is 700 feet below.”

ONE MAN’S TRASH IS A BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY ...

Decomposing garbage produces methane, which Republic sells to DCO Energy to produce electricity. Republic sank 130 wells 100 to 300 feet into the garbage heap to capture the gas. The pipes serving the wells move 3,000 cubic feet of methane per minute.

Methane is pumped into an on-site, $7 million Republic Services treatment facility. Inside, bacilli bacteria remove hydrogen sulfide from the methane. In exchange, they take in elemental sulfur, which causes them to get fat and bloated. They are periodically put into a centrifuge that squeezes out the sulfur, which is disposed of off-site, before they go back to work.

Treated gas is piped a mile uphill to the $35 million DCO Energy facility on the Apex grounds that generates 6.5 megawatts of power, enough to power 6,500 homes. DCO sells the electricity to NV Energy.

Las Vegas Paving Company leases land at Apex from Republic Services to produce dirt and sand for construction and paving projects, and for use at the landfill. The first mountain excavated at the site produced 100 million tons of rock.

A CLARK COUNTY RECYCLING SUCCESS STORY

For all the things our Strip resorts nail — great food, great shows, great hotel rooms, great shopping — they’ve become experts in another field most of us want nothing to do with: garbage. Half of all the trash generated in local resorts gets recycled.

The secret, casino executives say, is capturing as many recyclables as possible before they hit the Dumpster.

Resorts started manually sorting trash in the mid-2000s to recover napkins, plates, glasses, linens, salt and pepper shakers, ashtrays and other items guests and absent-minded employees dump in the trash. The practice has saved the Bellagio alone $100,000 a month, said Christopher Peisert, director of hotel services.

Better yet, most guests have no idea what’s taking place. Long ago, managers determined it was easier to have employees sort than ask guests to separate discards into different bins.

• Reclamation. All of the major Strip resorts have sorting facilities on their loading docks where employees fish out valuables, such as silverware, then separate glass, plastic, cardboard and other recyclable materials. The recyclables then are sold, including to Republic Services.

• Cooking oil. Caesars Entertainment and MGM Resorts International sell about 5,000 tons of used cooking oil and grease to Renu Oil of America to be converted into biodiesel.

• Worldwide reach. Caesars, the Venetian and Palazzo give leftover soap and shampoo to the Clean the World nonprofit, which processes them into new bars of soap and bottles of shampoo to be distributed to disaster victims and in developing nations.

• Pigging out on our food waste. Caesars and MGM send 1,000 tons of food waste each month to RC Farms, a North Las Vegas pig farm that uses the organic material as livestock feed, and Las Vegas’ A1 Organics, which composts it, often to resell to the resorts for landscaping.

• Teachable moment. Caesars and MGM donate binders, folders, paper and pens left behind by conventioneers to local teachers.

• Cigarettes rise from the ashes. Caesars partnered with TerraCycle to recycle used cigarette butts. The filters are used into plastic pallets, while tobacco scraps are used for composting.

• Put a cork in it. At MGM resorts, wine bottle corks are recycled by ReCork and made into shoe soles, flooring and packaging materials.

Staff writer Tovin Lapan contributed to this story.

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