October 16, 2003

Sixty percent of households would recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal if it were convenient and cheap to do so. In New Castle County, where it is neither, the rate is estimated to be around 6%. A study conducted on behalf of the Delaware Recycling Public Advisory Council concludes, however, that it is possible to get that up to about 30% if there is a will to do so.

"You don't have to be an environmentalist to like recycling. You can like it because it makes sense," said Ted Seigler, of D.S.M. Environmental Services Inc., the Ascutney, Vt.-based firm hired by the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to conduct the feasibility and cost estimating study.

The approach the firm recommends is a countywide system of collecting residential recyclables with bi-weekly curbside pick-up. Coupled with not accepting mowed grass at the landfill and requiring other lawn and yard waste, except leaves in autumn, to be dropped off at collection points for composting, that would achieve the 30% goal, which was set by an executive order of former Governor Thomas Carper, the study report said.

If the present arrangement of trash collection by competing private firms in the same neighborhood were replaced by one in which the firms would be contracted with to exclusively serve specified franchise areas, the net cost of adding  recycling collections would be covered by present rates, which average about $19 a month in unincorporated areas of the county.

It costs a lot less to send one truck down the street stopping at every house, Seigler's associate, Natalie Starr, said. On the other hand, simply requiring trash-collecting firms to offer curbside pick-up of recyclables would result in their having to surcharge between $1.80 and $2.60 a month, which is at the high point of what people would be willing to pay if they were asked to subscribe to that service voluntarily.

Adding bi-weekly curbside pick-up of recyclables would actually reduce costs for municipal systems, such as the ones in Wilmington and Newark, by eliminating those materials from trash that has to be dumped at the Cherry Island Marsh landfill at per-ton rates, the report said.

Simple as that might sound, it was evident at the D.S.M. presentation on Oct. 15 that talking about such an arrangement is considerably easier than getting there.

For starters, Starr said, the firm conducted the study against a backdrop of a seemingly innate resistance to recycling. At a minimum, she said, "everybody tells us that people don't want to pay for recycling in Delaware." In comparable communities and areas, particularly urban ones, all over the nation, separating recyclables from other wastes is accepted as part of the household routine, she said. On the other hand, the study found that subscribing to a trash-collecting service and paying the stated rate is an almost universal practice among the better than  three-fourths of the population who do not live where there is municipal trash collection.

Asked by Delaforum how a mandatory recycling system would be financed, Seigler replied that issue was "beyond the scope of what we were asked to do." But,. he added that, speaking generally, Delaware Solid Waste Authority could increase 'tipping' fees and the collection firms would pass that on to customers. The 'tipping' fee is the charge for dumping refuse at the landfill.

An alternative would be to have an entity with taxing authority impose a trash-service fee, which could be based on the amount of trash generated by a household as measured by the size of the trash container that is used. That would be somewhat comparable to the sewer fee that New Castle County charges, which is pegged to water consumption.

"There is no single solution. We don't have an answer to that," he said. "There are all sorts of political issues associated with that."

Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the recycling council, was more specific. "If we're going to get any kind of contracted system, New Castle County [government] is going to have to do it," he said.

In a separate context, County Executive Tom Gordon recently told a meeting of representatives of umbrella civic organizations that he has no desire to have county government "get involved in that business." As it happens, the recycling council plans to conduct a series of presentations of the D.S.M. report to civic groups around the county.

The report includes an array of cost estimates, ranging upward to about $5 a month for a subscription recyclables pick-up such as the waste authority has begun on a pilot basis. Siegler said his firm's experience with various programs around the nation finds that up to 80% of households will agree to curbside recycling if it is free; 40% are willing to pay an additional $1 a month for the service; and 20% will go as high as $3 a month. Beyond that, he said, forget it.

It is hardly surprising that most people are not anxious to pay extra to throw away something if the alternative is to throw away the same thing without paying extra, he said. What is not realized is that they already are paying for not recycling. The rates their trash collecting firm charges, for instance, are based on 'tipping' fees reflecting heavier weights when recyclables are included with other dumped trash. Intangible costs include paying for environmental effects, including in New Castle County, the likelihood of having to deal with the effects of an expanded landfill.

Although one of the most comprehensive of its type, the present system of dropping off recyclables at 'igloos' in public locations is relatively ineffective, Starr said. On-site questioning of users found that there is a virtually solid cadre of patrons making frequent trips to the sites. By and large they make up most of the estimated 6% rate the study assigns to northern Delaware.

Siegler said that is actually well below the national average. He said  the profile his firm accepts has about 20% of recycling enthusiasts in the general population with about the same proportion "who are against recycling, no matter what."

In evaluating costs, the report found that the area has ample capacity to handle any reasonably likely expansion of recycling. The waste authority has existing buildings large enough to install processing equipment at its Pigeon Point location between Wilmington and New Castle to process the material. Much of the operational cost that would be involved could be met by selling it. "There is a market for properly sorted and prepared material," he said.

Except for being able to sell some compost, there is no market for the grass which makes up by far the bulk of yard and lawn waste generated in suburbia, which makes up about 38% of all residential waste. D.S.M. recommends reeducating the mowing public to simply leave the clippings lie. "From an environmental point of view, that is a lot better than having to send a truck down the road to pick it up," Starr said.

Autumn leaves are a different story, she added, noting that her trip to Delaware to present the report was preceded by a pre-dawn chore of clearing leaves from a storm sewer drain in front of her home.

2003. All rights reserved.

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