Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Trash Talking

Yesterday’s article on Nashville’s “Curby” program came at an interesting time, since I have been meaning to call Metro Public Works to get another green cart out at our place. Mr. Beale and I recycle, and since pick up is just once a month, our two 64-gallon large bins are always filled to overflowing.

I have a little challenge with myself to see how little actual garbage I can generate. One week I actually got it down to one large garbage bag, but I suspect that’s because we ate out a lot that week. The truth is, we generate plenty of garbage at our house.

I grew up recycling, it’s just what you did. It’s habit, like brushing your teeth at night and paying the electric bill on time. But I understand for a lot of people around here, recycling is some strange new thing they fear is sucking taxpayer dollars away from ... I dunno, whatever they think is more important.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a lot folks share the views of this guy:
[Nate] Crawford, who terms himself a "country boy from Lawrenceburg," never used it, and his questions about the program have only grown.

"I did not want my tax dollars spent for that. I feel the same way now when it's only being used by 37 percent of the people.

"This is an awful lot of money when a lot of people don't participate," he said.

Actually, it’s not a lot of money. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the program only costs $878,399. Compared to the entire Metro budget, that’s peanuts.

I don’t mean to put words in Mr. Crawford’s mouth, but I get the feeling a lot of folks resent city recycling programs largely because it sounds like a “liberal” thing to do. Whatever the reason, I don’t blame people for having a negative attitude toward Curby -- Metro put zero effort into educating and promoting the program. If you don’t explain why the city wants you to recycle, of course people are going to be left to come up with their own reasons, or think it’s some politically correct exercise foisted on taxpayers by all the Democrats in the city council.

OK here’s the thing. Cities and counties recycle because they have to (federal and state laws about landfills) and because it makes economic sense. It’s a free-hand-of-the-market thing. Used paper, glass, plastic and metals are raw materials that have a dollar value on the open market. A while back people thought it made financial sense for municipalities to sell these items instead of throwing them away.

The more you recycle, the more money you save on tipping fees (what it costs to take a load to the landfill) and the more money you get selling metals, glass, plastic and paper. The more people who participate, the more cost effective it becomes.

Ideally, if everyone were to recycle, these programs would pay for themselves. That hasn’t happened in Nashville, for a lot of reasons. A big one is, no one has ever explained the economic value to the city of recycling, so our participation is low.

Nate Crawford may be a country boy, and I don’t know how they do things in Lawrenceburg, but I do know a lot of country folks in rural Kentucky who recycle. They don’t do it because they are tree-hugging liberals, but because of economics. When you live in the boondocks and don’t have the luxury of city services like weekly trash pickup, you have to pay a private trash hauler. The more pick-ups, the more you pay. People recycle because it’s cheaper for them.

Free hand of the market. My libertarian friends must be swooning.

That's the idea behind the solid waste program in Austin, Texas, where residents pay based on the size of their trash bin. The more they recycle, the less trash they have, and the smaller the bin, so the less they pay. I’ve always intuitively been opposed to doing that in Nashville, but I don’t really know why. It’s actually a really good idea that deserves some serious thought.

The Curby program is not as efficient as it could be. It costs more to not separate the cans from the paper and plastic, and those bins fill up real quick when pick-up is just once a month, which means recyclables inevitably end up in the trash. Metro’s curbside program originally had households separate their recyclables, and I don’t know why we stopped doing that. We’ve also stopped recycling glass, and I’m not sure why that is.

Some cities recycle compost--food scraps, yard waste and grass clippings; we don't, and we should. The compost generated could be used in city parks or sold at a nominal cost to county residents. It's a waste of landfill space to throw that stuff away.

Monthly Curby pickups don’t really put the incentive on recycling. In Tallahassee, Florida, they’ve cut back on trash pickup and increased recycling pickups. It worked:

But under the new system, residents receive only once-a-week service and have to roll their 96-gallon containers to the street for emptying. The city also changed the twice-monthly curbside recycling pickup to weekly pickup.

The idea was to save money and manpower and increase recycling. All that has come to pass.

Recycling of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles and aluminum cans has increased 30 percent. Through attrition and reassignment to other jobs, the city has trimmed its residential-garbage force from 41 employees to 23. And the department is spending less on gas and vehicle maintenance.

The bottom line for customers: The monthly charge for garbage pickup is still $15.30, as it's been since 1992. What else are you buying these days that costs the same as 15 years ago?

I don’t think people should be forced to recycle. But I do think people should be educated as to why it’s important. Maybe if everyone recycled, the program wouldn’t cost $878,399 a year but actually make money that could be spent on things like parks or environmental education in our high schools.

If Nate Caldwell knew that by recycling he was saving the city/county government money, not spending it, would he still choose not to participate? If the answer is yes, then we're talking about a whole different problem than how tax dollars are spent.