January 5, 2004

Delaware Solid Waste Authority will hire a consultant to come up with the specific information necessary for it, the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control and the Recycling Public Advisory Council to propose a plan for statewide mandatory recycling in time for the General Assembly, if it is of a mind to do so, to enact necessary legislation during its coming session.

Undertaking the study, when coupled with the fact that the department has yet to determine whether the waste authority's application to expand the Cherry Island Marsh landfill is technically 'complete', means that public hearings on that controversial project cannot begin until late summer at the earliest or, more likely, next autumn, John Blevins, director of the department's air and waste management division, told Delaforum.

The consultant's report and ensuing recommendations will become part of the application-review process, he said. The preamble of an agreement among its three sponsoring parties cites a 2003 Assembly resolution which calls for delaying a permit to expand the landfill "until waste reduction and curbside recycling alternatives are pursued." The theory behind that holds that removing recyclable material from the waste stream could significantly extend the life of the landfill's present configuration.

A more immediate question, chairman Paul Wilkinson told a meeting of the gubernatorial advisory council on Jan. 4, is whether Delawareans can make the leap from relatively low-key voluntary recycling to a full-fledged and mandated system in a single bound. "What happens if [that] doesn't take place?" he said.

With or without a fall-back plan to gradually scale up the present effort, he declared, "There comes a time when you stop talking about something and get to the down-and-dirty details."

That evidently will happen under terms of the joint agreement giving the solid waste authority the lead role in determining how best to implement a program for curbside pickups of recyclable material from residents and small business establishments and a marketing study to determine whether the collected material can be sold to defray at least some of the cost of the program.

Wilkinson called the special meeting of the advisory council to obtain its authorization for him to sign the tripartite agreement, already signed by Secretary of Natural Resources John Hughes and N.C. Vasuki, chief executive officer of the waste authority. The authorization was voted unanimously after a long discussion about what apparently was a parallel-track approach.

Wilkinson acknowledged that forging the agreement has been in the works for about six months, but the document signed by the other officials in December was not publicly disclosed nor even made available until the advisory council's meeting.

He said, however, that advisory council approval of the agreement presupposes that the waste authority keeps the council informed about the status of the study at each of the council's monthly meetings until it is completed. "I want to make sure that we don't have information that disappears only to pop up over there at some later time," he said.

Blevins, the ranking natural resources department official at the Jan. 5 meeting, maintained there was noting nefarious about reaching the agreement. "All this document (the agreement) said is who's going to take the lead" in coming up with specific data upon which the legislature and the agencies that will have to implement and enforce a mandatory program can act.

Among other things, that will expand on the work done by a consulting firm hired by the advisory council in 2003 to look at the feasibility of more stringent recycling in New Castle Count. "We have to look hard at the numbers [and] someone has to write the legislation," he said. "It's an agreement to make happen what was going to happen anyway."

Even so, Blevins added, tagging the likely result a mandatory program is misleading. "Mandatory implies enforcement; what we want to do is make it (recycling) easy so that more people will do it voluntarily," he said.

At present, public recycling in Delaware involves residents depositing materials into 'igloos' at 145 locations and 625 households in Brandywine Hundred who pay the waste authority a monthly fee to have their recyclables collected. The authority is now talking with Newark officials with a view to adding about 500 more subscribers to the pick-up program. The 2003 study commissioned by the advisory council estimated that about 14% of recyclable residential waste generated in New Castle County is being recycles. A minimum goal is to expand that to at least 30%.

Curbside recycling would require that householders remove certain materials -- cans, glass or paper, for instance -- from their trash and put it into separate containers for collection. An unresolved question is whether all recyclables could go into a single container or whether different materials would have to be segregated into two or more separate containers. A rule of thumb is that the greater the degree of separation, the more valuable the salvaged material becomes, according to Pat Canzano, the waste authority's chief operating officer and its representative on the advisory council.

Marlene Raynor, of the Sierra Club, took strong objection to Blevins's account of how the agreement was reached. "How come it's been going on for six months and we're just hearing about it now? We didn't know anything was going on," she said. The advisory council was established as the official public conduit by executive orders initially issued by former governor Thomas Carper and renewed by Ruth Ann Minner, the present chief executive, Reynor pointed out. Raynor is not an appointed member of the council, but is a participating observer at its sessions.

The agreement does specifically provide that the recommendations to emerge from the study and presented to Governor Minner and the Assembly will be subject to review at "public meetings" with at least one to be held in each county.

Canzano said after the meeting that there should be no problem adhering to the 120-day timetable specified in the agreement. Submitting a report by early May would give the Assembly time to act before it adjourns at the end of June.

Whether it will act is, of course, another question. While there is considerable support for mandatory recycling among both lawmakers and some segments of the public, there is the matter of inertia when it comes to changing long-followed practices. In a more practical vein, it would probably require such things as establishing area franchises for waste haulers, a proposition that the smaller firms in the business have resisted.

Canzano said the issue of how a mandatory system will be financed remains a major one that should not be glossed over. "Legislators are not only going to want to hear the rosy side; they'll also want to hear the downside," he said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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