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August 18,  2008

Trash firms resist taking
on local recycling roles

Waste Management, in its national advertising, cloaks itself in a deep shade of green and heavily promotes its claim to being the largest recycler of residential trash. 

In New Castle County, however, the firm's operating subsidiary, whose approximately 40% share of the business is by far the most, refers prospective recycling customers to Delaware Solid Waste Authority. It does offer to knock $2 off its $22-a-month fee for once-a-week trash collection for those who sign up for the authority's $6-a-month recycling service.

An authority spokesperson was unable to give the exact number of number of customers in the county. She said it is "somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 [and] growing every day." There are about 100,000 households in the county.

Waste Management is not out of step with the rest of the business. It's three largest competitors do the same thing. Independent Disposal Services' discount is $3 a month.

Only Econohaul offers to pick up recyclables, charging $3 a month more than its $20.25 fee for conventional trash collection.

Together, the five companies account for slightly over three-quarters of the residential business in the county.

On the other side of the ledger, a household which separates recyclables from other trash reduces the volume of conventional waste it puts out for commercial haulers by at least a third, according to Wally Kramer, environmental affairs chairman for the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. Haulers pay what is known as a tipping fee, calculated by weight, to dispose of the material they gather at the waste authority's Cherry Island Marsh landfill. It is currently $48 a ton.

Kramer said that the resale value of most recyclable material is at or near record high as a result of the escalation of the cost of energy and heavy demand, particularly from Asia.

The combination of reduced disposal cost and profitable sale of the collected recyclables ought to make economic sense, he maintained. The social and ecological benefits have long been established, he added.

Delaware, he said, is practically unique among states in not requiring separation of recyclables from other household trash in at least their urban areas.  In some places, dividing trash into as many as four categories is the norm. However, single-stream disposal -- that is combing paper, metal and plastic items and the same container -- is now technologically feasible.

Efforts to get the legislature to enact a law to put the state into what Kramer and other advocates contend is the recycling mainstream have been unsuccessful in several General Assembly sessions. Even the most recent version of proposed legislation, which called for a voluntary program, ran into strong opposition, particularly from lawmakers representing Kent and Sussex Counties.

"I really don't know how you get there from here," said Kramer, who also is a member of the governor's Recycling Public Advisory Committee. It is all but certain that another attempt will be made when a new state administration and Assembly take office in January.

There was a glimmer of hope when the Assembly early this year rejected an attempt to overturn the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control ban on disposing of yard waste at the landfill. But Kramer and other environmental advocates say the real test of the ban's effectiveness is soon to come when autumn leaves start to fall.

The department currently has temporarily closed its yard waste disposal sites to allow mulching to catch up with an accumulated backlog of material.

The trash collecting firms have all established yard-waste pick-up services for additional fees above their conventional-trash rates. The waste authority also offers that service to those who sign up for its recyclables collection service.

All except Econhaul also have tacked on 'fuel surcharges' to cover the increased cost of gasoline and diesel fuel. It is not clear why that cost of doing business is not simply folded into their rates. "It's just the way we do it," an employee of one firm said, adding that it is comparable to the practice of gasoline service stations stating prices with  nine-tenths of a cent added to the per-gallon amounts.

Most of the collection firms offer new customers only once-a-week service. Existing customers generally have been allowed to retain twice-a-week service.

Quarter-year rates for quoted prospective customers are: Waste Management, $66 or $59.40 for households eligible for a senior-citizen discount; Tri-State Waste Solutions, $69.75 and $59.25, respectively; Independent Disposal Services, $70.55 and $66.05, respectively; Allied Waste Services, $58.50, with no senior discount; and Econohaul, $64.50 and $60.75, respectively.

Kramer said establishment of trash districts, where a single company is awarded a franchise to serve all the houses, would result in economies that would reduce the cost of service and also could be a vehicle for requiring recyclables pick-up as part of the contract. While firms currently will offer discounts to entire neighborhoods where residents agree to go with one company, a district system administered by a government entity would be the only practical way to implement such a system.

The firms, he said, would 'save' $105 a year per customer by participating in such a system.

Although successful elsewhere in the nation, he acknowledged that it is not likely to get off the ground here. The larger firms would dominate a competitive-bid arrangement and allocating the franchises on the basis of existing market share would be politically and possibly legally prohibitive. Moreover, he said, country government would be the most likely entity to establish and run such a system but is not likely to be amenable to take on the administrative role it would require.

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