April 21, 2005

Opposition from municipal governments evidently has sidetracked a comprehensive mandatory recycling program, at least for the time being. At most, the General Assembly will be asked to approve a much less sweeping approach and it is questionable whether lawmakers will even be receptive to that.

James Short, the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control's liaison with the Recycling Public Advisory Council, told the council that Governor Ruth Ann Minner's staff is "working on their version of the legislation" which would establish such a program.

"They're trying to come up with a version that has a good chance of passing," he said.

Asked if that meant the plan which the council, in conjunction with the department and the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, hammered out during a year's worth of discussion, debate and public comment is dead, Short replied simply, "Yes."

"The proposal we made is not going to be adopted," said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the council. "I don't know how it's going to come out. I'm sure it's not going to come out the way it went in."

The council-produced legislation called for requiring all households in the state to separate recyclables from general trash and for private trash-hauling firms to offer separate collection of that material. They would be entitled to add the additional incremental cost to the fees they charge. The waste authority would process the recyclables for resale. Most yard waste would be banned from the authority's landfills with householders required to mulch, compost or otherwise dispose of it.

Newly appointed council member George Wright, executive director of the League of Local Governments, acknowledged that "one reason this bill is delayed is that municipalities oppose the bill in its present form."

Specifically, he said, the provision in the draft legislation which council submitted with its report to the governor that would appropriate $5 million to be distributed in the form of grants to assist municipalities meet capital costs involved with initiating mandatory recycling within their jurisdictions is inadequate. Excluding cities and towns which contract with private haulers for trash service is particularly objectionable, he said.

He said the league is "in total support" of recycling and efforts to increase public participation. "I will support a bill which I think is beneficial to municipalities, but nothing that is detrimental to them," he said.

Elsmere town manager John Giles said the council-proposed legislation had no provision for municipalities that entered into long-term contracts with private haulers because they were unable to afford to do their own collecting.

The council received the status report at its meeting on Apr. 20 with a mixture of resignation and muted disappointment.

Short said that Minner's decision to back off from the council's proposal does not sound a death knell for recycling. Her proposal "will keep the issue alive and moving forward," he said. "The issue is not dead in the governor's office."

Minner included significantly increasing the rate at which Delawareans recycle as one of her priorities in her 'state of the state' message to the Assembly.

"There may be a hundred different ways to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Wilkinson said. The goal is diversion of at least 30% of residential waste from landfills through recycling.

"I think we understood going in that there are a number of things in [the council's proposal] that would not be acceptable," he added.

Wilkinson said that the impediments are more fundamental than aid to municipalities. The added cost of recycling -- estimated by the council to run between $3 and $7 a month per household -- and "that one word, 'mandatory'," are difficult to overcome.

"We came up with the best balance [of competing interests] that we could. ...Unfortunately, it didn't get enough people in this state saying we need recycling. There was no loud voice out there."

The council was told that no legislator had been willing to sponsor its version.

Neither Wilkinson nor Short offered any indication of the direction the governor's staff might be taking. "They're playing it very close to the vest," Wilkinson said. Responding earlier to a Delaforum inquiry, a press spokesperson in the governor's office would say only that work on proposed legislation was proceeding.

Although the council did not attempt at its meeting to forge a response, there seemed to be something of a consensus emerging during the discussion that supporting a pilot program, rather than an all-encompassing statewide one, might be the way to go.

"Get the state to put up money for a test program. Get some idea [about] what would be a successful program we can buy into," Wright said.

Marlene Rayner, of the Sierra Club, who is not a member of the council, endorsed that approach. "Just get it done," she said.

Coincidentally, the meeting heard a presentation by Blue Mountain Recycling, a Philadelphia-based company which provides a commercial 'single-stream' recycling operation for the city and some townships in southeastern Pennsylvania using what it describes as sophisticated new technology to sort recyclables. Herb Northrop, a partner in the firm, said it is interested in expanding into northern Delaware. 'Single stream' refers to disposing of recyclable material in one container, rather than requiring householders having to separate it by categories.

Another firm, Recycle Bank, operating in conjunction with Blue Mountain, offers subscribers discount coupons redeemable at participating stores. Based on the volume of material a household recycles, the value of the coupons can be up to $25 a month, which well exceeds the added cost of recycling and the $1.50 a month subscription fee, according to Ron Gonen, who made that presentation.

Both firms claim to have produced significant and rapid increases in recycling rates.

"If there is a business opportunity, come in and do it," said Pasquale Canzano, the waste authority's chief operating officer. Nothing in the authority's franchise bars a commercial recycling firm from operating in Delaware. "We've always said, let the free market prevail," he said.

He said the authority's voluntary subscription program could be considered something of a pilot program. To date, he said, 3,400 households in New Castle County are participating -- at a cost of $6 a month -- recycling, on average, 28 lbs. a week.

The authority is negotiating an arrangement with officials in the city of New Castle which could result in a reduced-rate citywide collection there. There already is such an arrangement with Arden. It is planned to extend the program into Kent County next autumn.

2005. All rights reserved.

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