Nashville officials are scratching their heads to come up with a way to fix Metro’s curbside recycling program. It’s universally agreed that the program, begun in 1991, is a failure, so this summer Metro is testing a new strategy, a pilot program in which 3,000 households will use blue bags instead of the familiar plastic curbside bins.
Meanwhile, it’s generally conceded that the blue-bag trial, which is set to start in August or September, is a last-ditch effort. And environmentalists are concerned that, if the results of the pilot program don’t look encouraging, what will really be bagged is curbside recycling.
When Metro’s contracts with private garbage haulers are up in about a year and a half, environmentalists fear Metro will cut its losses and simply trash an unsuccessful experiment.
“I’m going to tell you, I’m an advocate on one side,” says Metro Council member Durward Hall, who’s been interested in trying a blue-bag system for years. “But on the other side, I’m critical of [Metro’s curbside program]. We’re throwing taxpayers’ tax dollars out the window with the current curbside program. And I mean that literally. I guarantee you the public would hang us if they really understood what was happening.”
Hall is probably right. Metro spends about $1.2 million a year on curbside pick-up, paying trash haulers Browning-Ferris Industries and Waste Management to collect the glass, aluminum, newspapers, and other recyclables from the plastic bins that program participants set out on each week’s pickup day. Once the recyclables are picked up, the haulers own the material and sell it for cash.
But participation rates have generally been abysmal. In some parts of Metro, only about 25 percent of the homes participate. In the areas with the highest participation rates, about 60 percent of households regularly set out their recyclables. Only about 50 to 60 tons of waste a day are diverted by the curbside and area drop-off recycling programs in Metro. By comparison, about 500 tons of scrap metal is recovered daily by the East Bank operation of Steiner-Liff Iron and Metal Co. Just 3 percent of waste is diverted from landfills and from the Nashville Thermal plant.
Last year it cost Metro $170 to pick up one ton of curbside recyclables. That’s compared to the $70-per-ton rate of Metro’s drop-off program, which encourages people to deliver their own recyclables to a collection site. Getting rid of the stuff by traditional garbage pickup costs just $60 to $70 a ton.
Beyond that, the curbside recycling program only reaches about 69,000 homesor about 40 percent of Nashville households. And taxpayers whose districts don’t have curbside pick-up are helping to pay for the program in other districts.
“I just don’t know how much longer we can have part of the county subsidizing another part,” says Council member Stewart Clifton, a staunch recycling advocate whose Hillsboro Road-area district has curbside service. “We’re essentially asking people who don’t have the service to pay for it elsewhere. And even though we have recycling in my district, it’s still not really fair.”
Clifton says Metro must address the issue of equal availability. “I have no sympathy for the argument that people don’t want to support libraries because they don’t go,” he says. “That’s fine. At least they could go if they wanted to. But it’s another thing if you just can’t go. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s some discussion that it’s time to do some really creative thinking about how best to do household recycling.”
Nashville isn’t the only U.S. city that’s had a problem getting its citizens to put their peanut-butter jars and their Diet Coke cans into a bin or a bag instead of a trash heap. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani slashed funding for recycling programs by more than 38 percentor about $30 millionin fiscal year 1997. As a result, curbside recyclables were collected less frequently, and the budget for public education and awareness was virtually eliminated. Cuts like Giuliani’s are justified by pointing to poor participation rates or by noting the fact that recycling programs are money losers.
New York City is diverting about 14 percent of its solid waste as recyclables, but that’s still lower than the 25 percent mandated by the city’s own law.
In Chicago, where the blue-bag program marked its first anniversary in December, the city was diverting 11.5 percent of its waste in recyclables after one year. Still, only about a quarter of Chicago’s households were using the blue bags, and the city was still woefully behind its goal of a 25 percent diversion rate. The city wasn’t getting any help from the environmental community either. The Chicago Recycling Coalition, a recycling advocacy group, was constantly criticizing the efforts of city officials.
In Washington, D.C., where the city government is perenially broke, the curbside recycling program shut down altogether this year.
Bagging the question
Metro Public Works officials in charge of the city’s recycling programs maintain that blue bags may be more successfuland less costlythan the plastic bins. At this point in the game, however, there’s not much to lose. Metro can’t afford to continue an unsuccessful program that’s not equally available to all Davidson County taxpayers.
Jack Tucker, manager for solid waste and recycling in Metro, says the current program has simply turned out to be a “bad deal” for everyone involved. Metro is spending too much for too few people, and the haulers picking up the recyclables haven’t had very healthy profit margins either.
Under the pilot program, a new batch of homes will have six months in which to test the cost effectiveness of the blue bags. Each of the 3,000 homes will get a roll of 26 blue bags to be used during the trial period. On recycling days they’ll place their garbage on the curb, alongside their blue bags filled with recyclables.
Metro officials think they can save money by using two new dual-compartment truckseach costing $150,000to pick up both the garbage and the recyclables at the same time. As of now, garbage and recyclables are picked up separately. Metro’s theory is that, with only one pickup route, there will be a significant cost savings.
But there’s always a hitch. Critics say the trucks’ garbage compartments will probably fill up before the recycling compartments do, forcing the trucks to make at least two runs anyway. Another downside is that the blue-bag system won’t accept glass, which might break, posing a hazard for garbage collectors or contaminating the other recyclables. Finally, the blue bags themselves can’t be reused, and there’s even a question as to whether they can be recycled. Unless they can be recycled, they will have to be thrown away.
The location for the pilot program has yet to be determined, but it definitely will be somewhere in the urban-services district, probably somewhere not too far from downtown, Public Works officials say. The trial program will likely begin sometime this summer.
In the dumps
For more than one reason, recycling advocates aren’t thrilled. For one thing, Metro plans to include in the program some homes that are already served by the bin system, while environmentalists wanted to go after an entirely new audience. “My biggest problem would be that we would be losing an opportunity to give a service to people who don’t have it now, while still being able to compare and see,” Clifton says.
Chip Forrester, past president of the recycling advocacy group Recycle Nashville, agrees. “If somebody already demonstrates an unwillingness to use curbside, what makes you think they’re going to use a blue bag?” he asks.
Clifton and others say Metro has never really invested the time and resources necessary to make curbside successful. “I think there’s some obvious feeling that it’s not a big priority for the city,” Clifton says. “And there’s a feeling that we just don’t have enough participation in the city to justify it. But we don’t actually attack that aggressively and try to get people to do it.”
Forrester says he believes Metro has set itself up for failure. To support his argument, he cites Mayor Phil Bredesen’s apparent lack of interest in solid-waste issues, as well as the mayor’s purely economic approach to the issue. “Judging from the evidence over the last couple of years at the Metro recycling office and initiatives they have taken, one could come to the conclusion that there’s not a commitment from the mayor’s office or Public Works,” he says. “A reasonable person could come to the conclusion that Metro wants recycling to go away.”
Public Works tells a different story. Dianne Wiles, assistant director of the department, seems hopeful about the pilot’s success. She also seems resigned to the fact that passionate environmentalists will always use Public Works as their whipping boy. She says the department has already responded to the criticism of overlapping services in the pilot program. Adjustments have been made in the pilot program to reduce the number of homes that already have curbside service. But “there is still going to be some overlap with curbside,” she admits.
No matter what happens with the pilot, city leaders predict talk about eliminating curbside service will continue. And there will be plenty of supporters for the idea of establishing more drop-off sites throughout the county.
According to Clifton, “We are either going to have to get serious about curbside recycling and do a decent job of promoting itwhich I don’t think we do right nowor the cost is going to be so much that people will demand some changes.”
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