Tax, carts best recycling option for Orange County

April 20, 2013 

Franchising is off the table. The most recent Board of County Commissioners meeting on restructuring the financing method for our recycling program started with an assurance from Barry Jacobs that the commissioners are committed to protecting the best waste reduction program in the state, and assuring that it remains aggressive, collaborative and effective. By the end of the meeting the commissioners had adopted five goals against which to measure the three remaining financing options (district tax, waste authority, eliminating rural curbside collection program).

Staff is scheduled to present an analysis on Tuesday that evaluates these three options as to their cost efficiency, the degree to which they maximize recycling and equity, their fairness to staff and independent haulers, and how well they advance a program of comprehensive waste reduction in partnership with the four towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Mebane.

To conduct a cost efficiency analysis, staff will be evaluating the cost of implementing and maintaining the operation of each alternative against output. That output was defined, with a little nudging from staff, as collections from curbside recycling. Curbside pickup increases recycling participation, so eliminating the rural curbside program is counter to the goal of maximizing recycling. A waste authority has many positives, but would take years to implement leaving the community without a rural curbside program and possibly forcing the towns to create an independent urban collections program. That leaves us with the district tax as the most feasible option, at least in the short term. Manager Clifton assured the commissioners that a district tax could be implemented by July 2013.

Moving expeditiously to implement the new tax district should be our goal. While our local governments do not excel at moving expeditiously, doing so would prevent using dedicated, landfill-closure reserve funds to support current recycling operations. But if we are forced to use some of those reserve funds, the least we can do is improve the efficiency of our curbside recycling program.

While Orange County has, without doubt, the most comprehensive and successful waste reduction program in the state, our curbside recycling collection rate lags behind those of our neighbors, including Mebane, Durham and Raleigh. The simple solution for improving that statistic is to move from bin collections to rollout carts. Funding to purchase carts has been included in the recycling budget for the past three years, but those funds have been held by the county manager while Chapel Hill conducted its solid waste planning process resulting from the landfill closure decision.

Rollout carts may sound like a luxury, but Chapel Hill is the largest municipality in the state still using bins. Carts pay for themselves through increased participation and operational efficiencies. Between Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Orange County and Hillsborough, $285,000 in Solid Waste Trust Funds are available to fund cart purchases, but the trust fund is being restructured by the governor so we need to act quickly or we will lose that opportunity.

Rollout carts are not only more convenient for residents, but the collection process is also significantly safer and cheaper. Collecting bins requires workers to bend and stoop at every residence resulting is a fairly steep worker injury rate. Carts would eliminate that impact on workers’ backs and speed up the collection process. We currently pay Waste Industries $3.73/household/month for collection of bins in the urban areas. With carts, we would save $9/household/year or about $170,000 overall. Between those operational savings and the state grant, the carts would be paid for in about three years. If they had been purchased when they were originally budgeted, they would already be paid off.

Now, we just need to get the county commissioners and the elected officials from the town to come together to make some decisions. But that’s another story.

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