Unquestionably, the onslaught of the current recession, along with volatile gasoline prices and the stubborn doldrums of the recycling market, has hurt the entire recycling community. But nowhere has this triumvirate hit harder than in rural communities, particularly those in the Midwestern, Southern, and Mountain states. Without a real safety net, rural communities have little maneuverability to sustain their recycling programs.
Moreover, these current problems simply exacerbate a long-standing situation. As detailed by the famous Harris Poll 67 of July 2007, there was a significant regional difference in “who recycles and who does not. Those in the East and West are more likely to recycle (88% and 86% respectively). One-third (32%) of those in the South as well as three in 10 (30%) of those in the Midwest, however, say they recycle nothing.” The poll did not provide comparable data from the Mountain states, but the extreme rural makeup of Southern, Midwestern, and Mountain states indicate a low recycling rate (at least in 2007) of all three areas.
Why don’t they recycle more? The Harris poll explored that also and concluded that “[a]mong those who do not recycle, the reasons are varied. One in six (15%) say they do not recycle because it is not available in their area, while 12% each say it takes too much effort and it costs more to recycle where they live. Just one in 10 (11%) say they do not recycle because they don’t believe it makes a difference, while 6% say they are too busy and 5% say it is too difficult.
“Southerners might be more inclined to recycle if it was cheaper and actually available. One in five (20%) of those who live in the South do not recycle because it isn’t available in their area, while an additional 14% say it is because it costs more where they live. For those in the East who do not recycle, laziness may be the reason. One-quarter of Easterners (26%) say they do not recycle because it takes too much effort.”
|Photo: IBA Associates
Rural recycling is often hindered by low population and limited industry.
Hence, even before the current trio of problems began to hit, it was an extremely difficult task for a rural community to develop and sustain a successful recycling program as measured by state recycling and/or diversion goals or mandates that urban communities were in a much better position to meet. Rural communities were—and still are—handicapped by inherent situations, including low-density residential housing, low population, and very limited industry. All this results in more expensive per-ton recycling costs, and a tax base that severely limits local county budgets, which in turn limits the size of staffs to carry out recycling, other solid waste management programs, and the many other varied county functions.
By definition, rural areas have long hauling distances, to reach the scattered residents for collection and to bring the collected recycling materials to the nearest processing facilities and/or to recycling markets. Quoted in a 1993 article in Waste Age magazine, Philip Prete, principal of Prete Wilmot Associates of Durham, NC, said, “You have to figure out ways to collect out and on the way back with a single crew and a single truck… If a refuse collection truck or recyclables collection truck gets to the end of its route and has to deadhead back,…it’s [very] costly in a rural area. Once you get into truly rural programs, the trend is toward centralized drop off centers.”
This was true in 1993, and it is even more so today as significantly higher gasoline prices and inherently inefficient route requirements have prevented many rural counties from implementing curbside pickup. If gasoline prices of $1.50 per gallon precluded decisions to implement curbside collection, it has become prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of rural counties to even consider curbside collection at $4 per gallon, even though they know that curbside collection could increase the amount of recyclables and help meet state goals or mandates.
A side result of the difficulty rural counties face in efficient low-cost collection is lower amounts of waste being delivered to landfills and MRFs as the use of burn barrels and illegal dumping stubbornly persist. How much of this “solution” to the disposal of yardwaste and household waste occurs today? The actual amount has never been reliably be estimated, but it is thought that as much as 75% of rural residential waste is handled onsite.
Today, burn barrel use still persists, despite the EPA’s warning that “open burning of household waste in baffles is potentially one of the largest sources of airborne dioxin and furan emissions in the United States,” and despite individual state laws banning or at least regulating the use of burn barrels, backyard burning, and dumping of yardwaste and household waste. There are still no reliable statistics for this undercover disposal, but rural county solid waste management workers concede that there is a lot of it going on.
Drop-off centers have long been a popular mitigating factor for these problems of rural recycling. Some are located—and attended—at landfills or transfer stations, and these accept a wide variety of recyclables, often including such difficult recyclables as automobile batteries, used motor oil, and computers or computer parts. For large, sprawling rural communities, however, the greatest number of drop-off sites are unattended sites, open 24/7, that are strategically located for accessibility for the maximum number of residents possible. Typically, a drop-off center will have segregated bins to collect the standard recyclables such as paper, plastic, aluminum cans, plastic, tin cans, and (in some centers) glass. Some drop-off centers also have provisions for yardwaste.
These drop-off centers tend to be a very popular and often convenient medium for residents to recycle waste. Unfortunately, the unattended drop-off sites are subject to contamination, which can consist of nonrecyclable materials, garbage, and trash. Lucas County in Michigan has faced the problems of drop-off centers since 2001. The program has been very popular; some sites are so busy that they have to be emptied twice a day. But Lucas County’s unmanned sites faces contamination problems, too, and has had to take preventive steps.
At an April 2007 meeting of the Lucas County Solid Waste Department, Manager Jim Walter observed, “The public helps keep the recycling bins clean by being asked to call 255-STOP if they see people stealing from the bins, or making a mess, or contaminating. People who are caught using the bins for the wrong materials or making a mess receive a letter from the sheriff advising that one more time and they will go to court. The bins have cameras. The initial cost of cameras was high, but the maintenance and service isn’t too bad. We do have a staff member who works part time on driving the route of the bins and keeping them clean from the wrong materials. Residents could watch the sites on our Web site.
“We do have illegal drop-offs every day, including yardwaste, oil, cooking oil, paint cans, et cetera, but rarely do we get anything really toxic. The part-time staff does not check to see what is in every bin. Some bins have to be landfilled because of contamination; three of them had to be landfilled in 2006. The worst sites for contamination are the ones in isolated locations. We’ve learned that when bins are located on someone’s site, they take care of them.”
Although they do represent problems, drop-off sites have become the staple of rural recycling. Of course the recycling amounts of a system based solely on drop-off sites are quite low when compared with curbside recycling, and they do not enable a rural county to come close to meeting the state diversion requirements or goals. And with the stubbornly low market value of recyclables, even a system of solely drop-off sites represent an increasingly expensive drain on rural counties’ budgets in the current recession.
The Rural Communities Respond
Under all this pressure, are rural communities giving up on their recycling programs? “Surprisingly not yet,” concludes Laurie Batchelder Adams of LBA Associates, who concentrates that firm’s consulting activities in communities in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. “I haven’t seen recycling programs reduced or cancelled in these three mountain states yet. Everybody says, ‘I don’t know how long we can keep going with these quantities and these revenues,’ but nobody that we’ve worked with has downsized their recycling programs. “I keep waiting for that shoe to drop, but I have yet to see it happen.”
Yardwaste to Biomass
How are rural communities hanging in there? As you might imagine, that varies from community to community. Take Deschutes County in Oregon. According to Timm Schimke, director of the Deschutes County Solid Waste Department, Oregon has a law that requires a certain level of curbside collection depending on the size of the community. Despite the typical problems of rural community recycling, Deschutes County has actually gone beyond these curbside requirements, implementing curbside collection of recyclables in the denser rural areas outside the incorporated city limits, essentially creating joint urban/suburban areas that can share recycling processing and transportation to markets.
“However, most of the county is served by drop-off collection,” Schimke says. “There are drop-off facilities at the landfill and our four transfer stations, plus there are seven standalone drop sites that we call depots. These produce a fair amount of recycled material, although, of course, the vast majority comes from curbside collection. The few rural depots are in response to resident demand for recycling services in those areas where there is no curbside collection. Commercial haulers also serve these outlying areas. Some of them try to offer some sort of segregated curbside collection of recyclables, but so far it hasn’t amounted to much.”
Like most rural counties, Deschutes suffers from the low value of conventional recyclables coupled with high transportation costs. According to Schimke, “Oregon mandated a diversion rate in the 1990s, but then the state decided to set up goals rather than mandates. Since then, we have been trying to meet a very high goal (45% in 2009). Rural communities probably contributed a quarter of the tons diverted, but of course that means less than 10% of the goal.
“Now, we’re turning to yardwaste collection. In our existing curbside collection areas, we now collect conventional recyclables on odd weeks and yardwaste on even weeks. We have been using the yardwaste for composting all along, but now the biomass market is coming on strong. This area of Oregon is very dry, so there’s not much greenwaste. There’s a lot of brush and pine needles so our yardwaste is a woody mix that is ideal for biomass burning. In addition to our every-other-week pickup, residents can drop off yardwaste at disposal facilities. After the vendor grinds it, part of the ground waste for compost is left there, and the rest goes to the biomass plant.”
Wildfire is a real problem in Deschutes County, so the community has largely stopped using burn barrels, and residents are participating in the county’s aggressive fuels reduction program. Schimke thinks that the collection and shipment of yard debris and woodwaste is now probably the largest component of the county’s diversion program.
Schimke has long coveted the C&D wastestream of the strong building industry that has sprung up in the county. Not too long ago, the C&D from the construction industry was generating 60% of the county’s entire wastestream. That created a problem for us because the builders were so busy that they wouldn’t take the time and effort to separate the C&D; they would just throw everything in the same dumpsters.
“We finally were at the point where we felt we needed to consider increasing tipping fees on C&D waste to fund recovery efforts at the disposal site,” Schimke recalls. “The economic downturn has put that need off for a while. C&D waste has decreased dramatically, and those builders that are still working are motivated to minimize disposal costs under the current system.”
Getting by Without Curbside
Halfway across the country, Steve Christman, executive director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District, would like to base his entire recycling program on curbside collection. But he can’t. “I’ve tried and tried to get more curbside collection programs approved so that we can capture all that additional material,” he says, “but there’s no sense of urgency. Our drop-off program has been in place for so many years now that the perception is that drop off is our recycling program, so our residents ask, ‘Do we really need curbside collection in a town of 2,500 to 2,000 people?’”
Well, yes, they do if they can afford it. In Indiana, the use of burn barrels and open dumps is quite prevalent, Christman says. “Whenever times get tough, the usage spreads, and times are tough now. We don’t have any hard data on how much material that could be recycled or composted is being burned or dumped, but it could be a real factor in our recycling amounts, particularly if we could collect it.”
However, the four-county district, whose largest community has just 12,000 residents, has a grand total of only five curbside collection programs. “Every sector of our population, including urban, relies on drop-off facilities,” Christman says. “Even our few curbside users are using the drop-off facilities. Typically, our few curbside collection programs collect on routes every other week. So many curbside customers use the drop-off facilities during the off-week. As a result, not only rural, but urban, institutional, and business people use our drop-off facilities. It’s very, very difficult to convince people that we need curbside collection. Therefore, even though our solid waste plan calls for 14 of our larger communities to have curbside collection, only five of them do.”
So the district makes do with drop-off facilities, and the rural recycling drop-off program cost is approximately one-third of the annual district budget. And in 2008, the district took a very unusual step in an effort to enhance the recycling drop-off in order to recover as much material as possible for the least amount of money, it eliminated a net of five of its 21 drop-off centers. The idea was to eliminate low-volume drop-off stations, add additional stations in high-volume areas, and increase the number of bins at each site. And it seems to be working. Each facility has been handling more tons per day than they had been, and there has been a significant reduction in fuel consumption and material handling costs. The total amount of recycling did drop off somewhat, Christman says, but it’s been creeping back up to 300 tons per month.
Composting has been a bright spot in the overall program. The Solid Waste Management District operates rural compost facilities in each of the four counties. “We focus on yardwaste recovery,” Christman explains. “We do it because we want to get it out of backyards and burn barrels. The yardwaste is dropped off at any of 11 locations, where we grind it, compost it ourselves, and sell it as two finished products: soil amendment and wood mulch. It is very popular; residents come in every day, and we often run out it.”
The district has an unused asset in the form of a 30-acre site in Ashley, IN, and Christman says they are planning to develop that site as soon as the economy permits. He envisions a center where all the components of a solid waste management program can be built and integrated. Included would be a full-service recycling drop-off center, a composting facility, and a solid waste container system. It would be a single, integrated facility where customers could come to one place and drop off solid waste, yardwaste, recyclables, even electronics.
It isn’t curbside collection, but it’s quite a plan.
Planning and Collaborating
That’s not an unusual trend these days, according to Laurie Batchelder Adams. “A lot of cities and counties I work with have obtained planning money both from local and state grants. It doesn’t represent very much money, certainly not enough to capitalize infrastructure, but it’s enough so that they can invest in some basic planning and evaluation work.
“Right now, I’m seeing communities using this money to collect data through waste composition, new programs, and facility studies. They are using this information to answer questions like ‘What are we going to do when this slump is over? How are we going to make a strong recycling program happen? How are we going to capitalize these things we want to do when more funds become available?’
“Communities are looking into the feasibility of such things as recycled-material transfer stations, recycling processing facilities, and a more effective drop-off site network. One of them confided in me, saying, ‘You know what? If we’re going to do something important even if it’s five years away, we’d better do our homework now. Let’s look at some of these problem materials now. Like C&D, film, electronics, and gas patch waste. How do we get our arms around how much of this stuff we could divert—if and when we can afford the infrastructure to do it?’”
Adams says that she is seeing some rural communities considering recycling partnerships with other communities. Today, she reports, these communities are seeing that they can’t afford to do the whole recycling process themselves, trucking relatively small quantities of recycled materials to market and getting hardly any revenue—and seeing their neighboring communities doing exactly the same thing. In Colorado, there are three counties (Eagle, Garfield, and Pitkin) that are using USDA money to create a partnership and eliminate some of this redundant cost and effort.
“The concept is definitely worth a second look, especially in this economic climate,” Adams says. “For example, Uinta Recycling Inc. (URI) is currently doing a feasibility study for a new recycling center in Evanston, WY [Uinta County]. As part of that planning, URI has reached out to several other nearby counties, realizing that recyclables from each of neighboring counties will be going right through Uinta county on the way to Salt Lake City market. It is extremely inefficient for each of these counties to long-haul their small tonnages themselves. For this reason, URI plans to consider the overall feasibility of regionalizing their new program to support the needs of multiple counties. That’s serious planning. They could have just floated along, just hanging in there until the market straightens out, but they recognized that it’s really time to do the planning that’s needed for the future they want.”
Is Recycling the End-All and Be-All?
The South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency (SCISWA) has long had the reputation of being totally committed to recycling. Just touring its Environmental Education Center should convince anyone of that. Built six years ago, the Environmental Education Center is located at the agency landfill near Tracy, IA. The center is available for use by civic organizations and schools for meetings and presentations by SCISWA staff on topics that range from solid waste management or recycling to backyard composting or sustainable gardening. The classroom at the center holds 60 to 70 in theatre seating and up to 36 at tables. There is a kitchen with an oven and microwave available to use.
However, the most remarkable thing about the center is the fact that six years ago it was designed and built as an almost completely Green building. Among other things, it utilized many recycled or renewable sources. During construction of the Center:
- 28% of the waste was diverted from landfill;
- 75% of the wood was recycled;
- 75% of the cardboard was recycled; and
- 90% of the metal was recycled.
So the organizations and school children who visit the center each year have a firsthand, tangible lesson in the possibilities of recycling and reuse. Today, however, SCISWA is encountering many of the same difficulties that have plagued rural recycling programs around the country. SCISWA is almost completely rural. It covers five counties with a total population of 75,000. Of its 34 incorporated communities, only two have contract curbside collection and two have mandatory curbside collection (with a subscription approach).
Despite its recycling limitations, SCISWA must pay fees to the state if it does not meet the state-legislated diversion goals of 25% and 50%. “There is more of an incentive to address the 25% goal than to address the 50% goal,” says SCISWA’s Sara Bixby. “The diversion in this area is only about 12%. There are towns in the counties that undoubtedly divert more than that if they could look at diversion individually. However, the state calculation is based on the area and the tonnage landfilled rather than the amount of recyclables collected and processed.”
Bixby is part of a state council that is working on setting up an environmental management system. She describes it as “kind of a step beyond the programs counties have been implementing since 1988 in an attempt to meet the 25% or 50% diversion goals. Eventually, my agency, at least, is going to focus a lot more on the environmental management system approach, and we’ll be looking at possible actions to shore up some of the existing recyclable collection programs for small rural communities that are having financial difficulties. We plan to emphasize more on preventing illegal dumping and burning, on optimizing electronic recycling, on protecting groundwater, things like that. We need to look at a bigger picture than focusing on just the typical residential recyclables. Yes, we have a lot of ideas in mind to increase recycling, but only in the context of better overall environmental protection.
“We’re going to stop worrying about the 25% or 50% goals and penalties, and look instead at issues like ‘Does this program make sense? Are we getting things actually sent to the landfill instead of being burned in the backyard or dumped in a ditch? Can we sustain the programs we want to put in place? These questions challenge the way the state calculates diversion based strictly on the tons going into the landfill. I don’t think that’s a really good measure of the programs we’re putting in place and the success we anticipate.”
That approach carries an expense with it, of course. There is a $1-per-ton swing in tonnage tax that has to be paid to the Department of Natural Resources if an area falls short of the 25% goal. For SCISWA, that amounts to about $75,000 a year. Is it worth it?
“Yes!” she says emphatically. “You could put an awful lot of effort into worrying about the numbers and not really have sustainable programs. As the recycling markets have become tougher and as fuel prices have gone up to where it’s more difficult and expensive to run trucks up an down the road to pick things up, the questions arise, ‘Does that always make the best sense? Are the markets there?’ Stimulating recycling has always been a major part of our educational program. But now, we have to equally address reusing items and completing the cycle.”
There you have it. Rural recycling is clearly a dicey proposition these days with no early end to problems in sight. But rural county solid waste managers are not giving up or cutting back on their programs. And a surprising number of them are planning ahead and preparing for what may be a distant future when the recession eases and the markets turn. They may say, ”I don’t know how long we can keep going like this,” but their actions belie their words.
Not every rural community is having trouble with its recycling program. A single-stream recycling program in rural Maine communities has paid dividends and continues to do so. In late 2005, Portland-based ecomaine (formerly called Regional Waste Systems) undertook a single-stream pilot project in Lyman, ME, one of ecomaine’s 21 owner-municipalities. Ecomaine had learned from national studies that larger communities with curbside recycling have increased their recovery rates with the use of single-stream collections and processing technology. These studies also have shown an increase in collection and transportation efficiencies and cost reductions.Ecomaine was curious if rural residents, who have to bring their trash and recyclables to a transfer station, would also benefit from single-stream technology. They decided to test it and find outBeginning Dec. 13, 2005, through Jan. 10, 2006, people who arrived at the Lyman Transfer Station were instructed to toss all their recyclables into a single container rather than into separate containers for plastic, paper and metal. All of the recyclables were thrown into one of the town’s compactors, and the trash was thrown into the other.
Linda Boudreau, then ecomaine director and recycling committee chair, says that Lyman collected more than three times the usual recycling load before having to pay for transportation to the recycling facility in Portland. She credits this increase to the use of compaction, as the compacted loads weighed 8.23 tons on average, while the container loads averaged 2.53 tons each. “Therefore, there would be a reduction in the number of trips per year from 81 to 24 and, at a charge by haulers of $125 per trip, the town could potentially save $7,125 annually,” Boudreau adds.
In mid-2006, all 21 owner-municipalities voted to adopt this approach to single-stream recycling. The single-stream equipment and installation cost approximately $3.7 million and was operational in May of 2007. Funding came from reserves and earnings from the sale of recyclables.
For its member and associate communities, ecomaine provides 30-square-yard collection rolloff containers (known as “silver bullets”) for recycling by local residents. These rolloff containers are usually placed at transfer stations, large parking lots, or other easy-access locations to encourage recycling. Ecomaine owns 120 silver bullets, which are placed within easy reach of about 20% of Maine’s total population.
The program has been a steady success. Remarkably, the program’s success even extended to the smaller towns. In the two years since the program was instituted, for example, the 13 towns with populations less than 5,000 increased their recycling amount by 45.6%. The key may have been the convenience of the program. Residents don’t have to separate recyclables by type; they simply combine all glass, metal, paper, cardboard, and plastics into one recycling container. And they have more than 120 recycling containers in 60 locations throughout southern Maine to choose from.
Now ecomaine has another promising program under way: a recycling awareness program for summer visitors. Specifically, the aim was to target those ecomaine communities with large summer populations, low recycling percentages, and the ability to make decisions quickly. The chosen goal was to encourage recycling among tourists and seasonal homeowners with a program that was easy to put together, inexpensive, and effective in reducing the amount of money spent on trash disposal.
The two towns involved are Harrison (population 2,458) and Ogunquit (population 1,286). Both communities experience large population increases in the summer (Harrison is on a lake and at the foot of mountains; Ogunquit is on the ocean). The summer population in Ogunquit reaches 40,000 and is probably the most extreme example of seasonal population explosion in the state.
The two-year results as measured by the percentage of total MSW tonnage that is recycled, were impressive. Harrison improved its monthly recycling percentage of MSW tonnage by 4.41% from June 2008 to June 2009. And Ogunquit did even better in June, increasing by 4.91. And in July 2009, Ogunquit increased its percentage by a whopping 18.21 %.
Will ecomaine extend this program into 2010 and beyond? Will it extend the program to other ecomaine towns? They haven’t decided yet. After all, there is a nine-month break between summer tourist seasons in Maine. And with its record of testing aggressive new recycling options, ecomaine may well have started other programs before summer rolls around.