November 6, 2003

Mandatory recycling will likely become the major issue in the coming session of the General Assembly if a state senator follows through with an announced plan to introduce legislation to make that happen. Meanwhile, the chairman of the governor's Recycling Public Advisory Council wants to reduce a major component of the state's mounting trash heap more quickly by way of regulatory action.

Senator David McBride, who is not a member, attended a meeting of the council on Nov. 5 to seek its help in shaping proposed legislation which he said he is currently drafting.

He acknowledged that his effort is "in a very preliminary stage" and that he does not expect the bill he introduces to emerge as law in the form in which he presents it. Rather, what he has in mind is to turn what is now a largely theoretical discussion into serious public debate.

"When legislation gets introduced, it stirs public interest," he said. "At the very least I want to take [present interest] to the next level of discussion. ... The sooner the better."

Mandatory recycling, he said, would require establishing a system for curbside collection of recyclable material. For that to be practical, it is generally agreed, trash-collecting firms would have to be franchised to provide exclusive service in specific areas.

McBride said he and Representative Wayne Smith have tried previously, without success, to legislative establishment of such districts in New Castle County. Small independent collection firms have opposed such an arrangement on the grounds it would favor the larger local branches of national firms which, they feel, would dominate the business if not take it over entirely.

The legislator said he is inclined to think a mandatory-recycling law should apply statewide, but that he is willing to consider starting with more populous New Castle County and expanding it to cover Kent and Sussex later.

New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon has stated that he is not inclined to get county government involved in the trash business and County Council president Christopher Coons has said there is virtually no interest among Council members in moving in that direction.

Recycling council chairman Paul Wilkinson said a law is clearly necessary to bring about the "significant culture change" required to turn an ambiguous public attitude toward recycling -- a large majority of people say they favor it, but, in Delaware only about 6% of them do it -- into an effective program.

However, he said the process of forcing the change can and should begin with a direct attack on lawn and yard waste. which he said accounts for 12% to 15% of all waste and makes up the highest volume of residential waste.

The council has asked the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to "evaluate what it is going to take" to use its regulatory authority to impose a ban on dumping that kind of waste at the state's three public landfills. That would force residents to "get rid of putting grass in the garbage and [to] leave it on the lawn where it belongs," he said.

Natural resources secretary John Hughes has not yet responded to the council's letter, but Wilkinson said the council should press for a ban to go into effect on Apr. 1, 2005. Between now and then, he said, it should spearhead a publicity and education campaign to garner public acceptance of the idea.

"If we just keep talking and keep talking, it will be [target date] time and nothing will be done," he said.

Rick Perkins, of the natural resources department, told the meeting that 20 other states place some sort of restrictions on disposal of grass and other yard wastes. Perhaps the most effective, he said, is Massachusetts ban, but that requires continuing monitoring and inspection of waste loads being dumped and a willingness to tolerate a small amount of creeping around the ban.

Deborah Smedley, of Delaware Sanitation, agreed that enforcement will be difficult -- especially in the early days of such a ban. "People will hide it in their trash," she said, adding that is now a relatively common practice with other contraband.

"As it progresses, people will get in the habit of it. ... In the beginning it is difficult, but people eventually accept it," said Steve Masterson, of Waste Management. "What you need is education, legislation, transportation and destination."

Destination may not be as difficult a proposition as it might sound. James Short, of the natural resources department, said the department has been approached by two large firms involved elsewhere in commercial composting seeking to set up for business in Delaware. "We didn't look for them; they came to us," he said.

Hetty Franke, of the University of Delaware, advocated educating the public on the merits of backyard composting. However, she said, Delaware, unlike some other states, has no regulations governing such things as keeping food waste out of compost heaps to avoid attracting rodents.

The Delaware Solid Waste Authority had a composting operation several years ago, but was forced to shut it down because it created an odor problem, said Paul Canzano, who represents the authority on the council. Although it is reluctant to commit space dedicated to general waste disposal to composting, it will not necessarily reject the idea of doing that at its landfill sites, he said.

But, he added, "if there are people in the private sector who want to make a business of it and make money, why should we step into it?"

Net cost -- operational costs offset by revenue generated by selling the compost -- would be the determining factor, he said. Wilkinson estimates that recycling lawn and yard waste through the present trash collecting system would cost households an additional $2 a month.

Perkins suggested that, if the natural resources department is willing to pursue a ban on dumping lawn and yard waste -- which is, by no means, certain -- it should be asked to consider imposing an open-ended ban. Such a regulation, he explained, would initially list just lawn and yard waste, but could later be amended to add other material without having to go though the entire cumbersome regulation-writing process.

While there appeared to be general support from council members for the proposal, a long and sometimes rambling discussion produced no firm plan to pursue the ban nor take steps to implement other proposals contained in a consultant's report on recycling alternatives made public in October.

Wilkinson kept pressing for council members to propose specific actions and assign target dates and deadlines to them. However, several objections were raised to committing so firmly.

Department officials said the proposed 2005 target date for imposing a ban on lawn and yard waste might be at odds with the need to involve 'stakeholders' in the regulation-writing process if, indeed, the department has the authority to impose such a ban without accompanying legislation.

There was also some reluctance to proceeding with allying the council to McBride's proposal for recycling legislation because the panel was established by an executive order from and therefore answerable to the governor and such a law is not among the legislative priorities she now intends to present to the Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

Wilkinson himself acknowledged some timing problems by pointing out that mandatory recycling would require the building of a facility to recover and process recyclables -- probably by the waste authority at its Pigeon Point site. However, the authority is not likely to commit to the necessary capital investment without the existence of a law and collection system to guarantee it a source of income from operation of the facility.

2003. All rights reserved.

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