January 22, 2004

Mandatory recycling is at least a legislative session -- and a general election -- away. And, when it comes time to put a program unto place, the issue may well be more contentious than general expressions of support would seem to indicate.

That emerged as something of a consensus from discussion among members and other attenders at a meeting of the Recycling Public Advisory Council on Jan. 21. The idea of having at least the beginnings of a program running by spring, 2005, as previously discussed, may be fast fading.

"The state is ready for it, [but] we're losing momentum," said Marlene Rayner, of the Sierra Club. "We can discuss it forever; we have to set a deadline. ... We've already wasted a year."

Environmental activist Alan Muller, of Green Delaware, was more caustic in his comments. He accused the governor-appointed council of "a profound sell-out" for having agreed with the Delaware Solid Waste Authority and the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to have the waste authority do a feasibility study for a program.

As Delaforum previously reported, preliminary results of the study are due by late April or early May, but the agreement calls for subjecting that draft to at least one public hearing in each of the counties before being put into final form for submission to Governor Ruth Ann Minner and the General Assembly.

"The agreement means no chance of [mandatory] recycling," Muller said. "Anyone who thinks anything profound is going to happen ... are kidding themselves."

It was disclosed that the natural resources department has pushed back its timetable for adopting a regulation banning grass and other yard waste from landfills. An initial gathering of an advisory committee, originally scheduled for mid-January, has been postponed pending the outcome of the waste authority study. Noting that "multiple stakeholder meetings will be necessary to gain consensus," Secretary John Hughes had worked back from the January start to set December, 2004, as the goal for adopting the regulation. The council previously had proposed that it go into effect on April 1, 2005.

Also apparently delayed awaiting completion of the study is introduction into the Assembly by Senator David McBridge of proposed legislation to mandate recycling.

"Legislation like that is not something that is going to pass in two weeks," council chairman Paul Wilkinson said. "It doesn't look like it will be done this legislative year." The Assembly adjourns at the end of June.

Pat Canzano, who represents the waste authority on the council, said that the study is on track to meet an April completion date. It is being done partly within the agency and partly with the use of consultants. In any event, he said he will be able to provide some preliminary information to the council by its next monthly meeting.

Timing aside, the discussion raised the likelihood that mandatory, or even voluntary but organized, recycling isn't as much of a proverbial 'no-brainer' outside a relatively small circle of dedicated practitioners as one might think.

"I have 4,000 customers and, with all the press [the issue] has gotten, I've only gotten one call about it," said Deborah Smedley, of Delaware Sanitation, a trash-hauling firm.

Wilkinson said that legislation is necessary if there is to be any chance of reaching the stated goal of a 30% recycling rate, but the biggest hurdle in front of "getting from wanting to recycle to [actually] recycling" is cost.

That, said Steve Masterson, of Waste Management of Delaware, a large trash-hauling firm, is the primary reason legislators will move cautiously on the issue and probably shy away from it completely in an election year.

"Everybody wants to do it (recycle), but when we go for legislation these issue are going to crop up," Canzano said.

Another issue raised at the meeting was the effect a mandatory program will have on smaller companies in the trash-hauling business, especially if the program is based on establishing franchise districts served by a single hauler.

"If they do it by competitive bid, there is no way I can outbid Waste Management or B.F.I.," Smedley said. "They won't have any competition." B.F.I. is another large company operating in northern Delaware.

In a position paper presented to the council, Alice Jacobsohn, of the Maryland-Delaware Solid Waste Association, a trade organization of smaller firms in the business, argued that "consumers prefer the freedom of choice" among collection firms and that competition on that basis holds prices at reasonable levels. "When competition does not exist, taxpayers are forced to pay more money for services they have little or no control over," the paper said.

Enforcing mandatory recycling poses yet another issue, the council was told. It is common practice now for customers to dispose of forbidden and even dangerous material with their ordinary trash.

If yard waste is banned from landfills and hauling firms therefore refuse to take it, "you're going to see an awful lot of grass dumped by the side of the road," Masterson said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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