Will recycling remain free in Summit County?
September 30, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY – A projected $350,000 shortfall in the county’s landfill budget could mean cutting hours and even some fees for processing certain types of materials at the facility.
County commissioners and staff discussed landfill operations at a work session Tuesday to find a short-term solution for the funding gap and to start planning more long-term funding for managing the county’s waste stream.
“Over time, we’ve been subsidizing recycling and diversion programs with money coming in from garbage, which is offset a little bit by revenues coming in from recycling,” said assistant county manager Thad Noll.
But this year, revenues from recycling dropped dramatically as the price for those commodities plummeted as a result of the recession. At the same time, the volume of garbage flowing into the landfill also declined, creating the budget gap. Revenue from recycling operations will drop from $391,000 in 2008 to a projected $225,000 this year, according to county engineer Rick Pocius.
“This past year, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in garbage volume and drop in recycling commodities prices,” Noll said. “We cannot continue to fund diversion programs with garbage fees when we’re hoping to get rid of garbage,” he said.
At risk are some of the more expensive recycling programs valued by county residents, including electronics and household hazardous waste. Noll said the county might have to consider cutting those and keeping only the recycling programs that make money.
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At the end of his presentation, Noll cut to the chase, asking the commissioners if they’re OK with approving some recycling fees for certain programs.
Commissioners said they realize that fees could discourage recycling, but were willing to consider some charges as a short-term solution, “To make the shirt reach the pants,” as Commissioner Bob French put it.
For the long term, county officials said they recognize the need to find a dedicated, long-term source to fund what is being called “discard management,” a term coined to cover trash and recycling operations.
“We’re getting close to the point where nobody’s going to be thinking about burying these commodities, they’re just going to be valuable in the manufacturing process,” said Kevin Berg, the county’s recycling expert.
For starters, consumers have to be educated as to the true cost of recycling, especially the expense associated with handling materials like electronics and hazardous household waste.
Berg said the recycling industry also needs to be more accountable for how it handles materials and what it tells the public, especially with regard to co-mingled recycling.
“The dirty little secret of letting people mix (recycling) is nobody tells people how much of that goes into the trash. We’re bordering on lying to the public in telling them what we’re doing,” Berg said. “We’ve taken the stance that we’re not going to do that in Summit County,” he added, advocating for a transparent public discussion of recycling issues.
Ultimately, the county won’t be able to cover those costs with money coming in from trash “tipping” fees, with a long-term goal of zero waste. Currently, Summit County is diverting about 20 percent of the total flow of discarded material out of the landfill. Tipping fees are what individuals and trash haulers like Waste Management pay to the county for the ability to use the landfill.
Other possible funding sources include new taxes or a user-fee on garbage collection, or even up-front retail charges for products that end up in the waste stream but are expensive to process – similar to fees consumers pay when they turn in old tires or get their car oil changed.
“We need a sustainable funding source for capital investments in diversion, discard management and post-closure costs (for landfills),” Berg said.
“it would be great to have some infrastructure in place for when the economy picks up again,” said High Country Conservation director Carly Wier.
David Scheuermann, owner of Talking Trash, the only locally owned garbage hauling company, said that, everytime there’s a change in recycling operations, it throws people off. He said people are still confused about what types of plastic can – or can’t – be recycled.