July 16, 2004

Mandatory recycling would probably result in diverting about 16% of residential solid waste from the state's public landfills for reuse, according to data compiled by a consultant for the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. That would be about three times the present recycling rate in New Castle County, but fall well short of the 30% rate which has been put forward over the past several years as a statewide goal.

The 30% target could be exceeded by a fairly wide margin, however, if dumping yard waste into the landfills were banned and that material was composted, either commercially or privately, or mulched. As much as 75% of the material could end up being reused, a preliminary draft of a report said.

The 16% rate is based on an assumption that about two-thirds of recyclables would actually be recovered to be reused. Even if all the material were recovered, the overall recycling rate would go up to only 24%. Based on 2000 data, Delaware households generate 510,310 tons of waste a year, of which 121,916 tons is recyclable.

Net cost of collecting and processing household recyclables statewide would be $23.7 million a year if householders were permitted to put all kinds of designated material into a single container for street-side pickup. If they had to further separate it between two containers, the cost would go up to $30.7 million. Apportioned equally among households, the cost comes down to about $7 a month for single stream or $8.50 for dual stream.

So-called single-stream -- one container -- recycling costs less to collect than dual-stream recyclig, but more to process. The quality of the resulting material is lower, which reduces its resale value.

Those estimates by D.S.M. Environmental Services Inc. are the basis of a draft report produced by the waste authority under a tripartite agreement with the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control and the Recycling Public Advisory Council.

An unsigned cover memo cautioned that the report is, indeed, a first draft and will likely be subject to a considerable number of changes as the other parties attempt to resolve controversial elements and the general public gets a crack at it at four open hearings during the autumn. A final report and draft legislation is due to be presented to Governor Ruth Ann Minner and the General Assembly by the end of the year.

"At this time, no decisions have been made regarding the contents of the report, including proposed legislation," the memo said.

As previously reported, the draft legislation as it now stands would establish a statewide system for collecting recyclables by dividing the counties into districts in which private companies would bid for exclusive contracts to collect recyclables. The program would be paid for by assessing county governments, which presumably would pass that cost to property owners either as part of the property tax or as a separate fee. Both of those ideas have already sparked controversy.

The D.S.M. Environmental study is the fourth since 1997 to look into the feasibility of government-sponsored recycling in Delaware.

Nowhere in the preliminary report is there a conclusion drawn about that, but it does point out that even a successful program will have relatively little effect in extending the useful life of the existing landfills. Without its proposed controversial expansion, the Cherry Island Marsh landfill has two years to go before it is filled. Achieving a 30% recycling rate would add only five months to its anticipated lifespan.

In terms of combined capacity of the three public landfills, their useful life would go from 17 years to 20 years. "Even with a 30% residential solid waste recycling rate, substantial landfill capacity is still needed statewide to manage the remaining 687,000 tons of municipal solid waste annually," the draft report said.

The draft also punctures a myth that marketing recyclable material is an avenue to sure riches. Except for aluminum cans and sheets, which have maintained relatively high resale value, other material considered commercially viable has fluctuated widely between their highs and lows since 1999. Steel cans, for instance, have ranged between $20 and $100 a ton; plastic between $40 and $160.

While Delaware is too small to influence the resale market, the draft report notes that the waste authority has been particularly successful in selling between 95% and 97% of the material collected through its 'Recycle Delaware' drop-off program. Partly the result of such material having been separated into several categories by donors and partly through the efforts of a staff person in getting the best prices and longer-term purchase commitments, the authority has established a 'niche' in the resale market, the report said.

Also brought into question in the draft report is the assumption that, aside from a relatively small cadre of devoted recyclers, the public is not apt to take kindly to a law requiring them to sort their rubbish. It notes there are more than 500 state recycling laws on the books around the country. Most of them rely to a large degree on voluntary compliance. "The neighboring states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have a variety of programs developed and implemented by local governments [with] varying rates of success," it said.

2004. All rights reserved.

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