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Waste Full 

Recycling That Works Cuts the Waste Out of Local Government.


WHENEVER PEOPLE want to dump on recycling, whether it's radio talk show hosts or guys in bars, their trump card is always that government picks up your recyclables, and then secretly goes out and dumps your rinsed-out jars and tied-up newspapers into the landfill.

So when it leaked out that between August, 1999 and May, 2000 Pima County was burying half of what it collected from people's recycling bins at the landfill, the un-American Recycling Conspiracy Theory gained ground.

According to Eliseo Garza, director of the City of Tucson's solid waste department, scores of people called to complain. Wrong government. Unlike the County, the City of Tucson has a Waste Reduction Plan that includes not only a diversity of recycling programs, but also a way to survive intermittent revenue shortages in the volatile recycling market.

It was that shortage, admits County Manager Chuck Huckleberry, that led to the decision to bury tons of recyclables. "We made a big mistake," he says. "We should've brought it to the public's attention sooner. We'd been losing money and we just couldn't stockpile it anymore."

The bigger, long-term question is, don't we lose money when we fill up expensive landfill space with tons of trash that could be recycled?

The County plans to funnel part of a new tipping fee--which is paid by commercial waste haulers every time they dump at a landfill--into a recycling fund to help get through the market's peaks and valleys. According to Don Cassano of Waste Management, a large recycling hauler in suburban Pima County, his company never dumps recyclables.

"When markets drop, we have negotiated what we call 'floor pricing' with mills that process recyclables," he says. In other words, the mills guarantee a minimum price. "That is done nationally, and we're always protected."

No question that heavily urbanized Pima County needs a comprehensive waste reduction plan, but just having one is no guarantee all the problems will go away.

The City of Tucson offers a prime example.

Since the summer of 1990, the city has had progressive waste reduction goals in place, from which a plan was developed and adopted by the mayor and Council the following year.

The main goal was to reduce the city's waste stream by 50 percent by the year 2000. Now, a decade later, the city has only managed to stem the flow into Los Reales landfill by 7 percent--3 percent from curbside collection, and 4 percent from commercial cardboard and neighborhood recycling centers. We were doing about this well back in the 1980s with the all-volunteer Tucson Clean and Beautiful programs.

A few months ago, the city opened two new, fully lined cells at the landfill, at a cost to city residents of $5 million. At the rate we throw things out, about 4.4 pounds per person per day, by 2004 these 25 acres will be filled. There are already plans for another $20 million worth of expansion at Los Reales to cover us until 2016. After that, you figure out where the next cost-effective landfill should go. The experts are stumped.

Since 1995, city staff, drawing on legions of research from around the country, has encouraged either charging for garbage, mandating recycling, or at the very least making both recycling and garbage collection once a week. Staffers are certain that with the same $1.9 million currently budgeted for recycling, we can easily get three times the waste stream diversion--which means more money from recyclables, fewer millions for new landfills, and increased general funds for pressing quality-of-life issues.

Yet these opportunities have been ignored.

Waste department director Eliseo Garza can't implement improvements without mayor and Council blessing. "The solid waste department believes in the mayor and Council's waste reduction goals," he says. "We know that what we are doing now will never get us to those goals. We believe, after much research and many pilots, that once a week refuse, once a week recycling ('One and One') will be a major step in the direction that the community wants to go."

For going on 10 years, elected city officials have argued this subject to death. What is keeping Tucson from successfully recycling? Fear of change is natural, but countless pilots in every ward over the last five years have assured people that the One and One program will neither increase odors nor decrease capacity. You simply put things in different containers.

Mike Lyman is president of the Lincoln-Grove Neighborhood Association, which has had the pilot program for the last four years. "It has worked so successfully in this neighborhood," he says. "It's just a shame it hasn't happened all over the city. Our alleys are cleaner, and those people with large families are taken care of with an extra container."

Still, the elected officials wait.

The latest delay was caused by a failed public-private partnership with a company called Actlink. While Actlink's Eco-Industrial Park may have been a great idea, city taxpayers resisted paying upward of $20 million to build a processing plant when private enterprise is eager to do the job.

One such Arizona-based business is Friedman Recycling, which currently handles the city's curbside program. About his family-owned operation, Morris Friedman says, "We've been in the business for 46 years. For about $700,000 we can upgrade our Tucson facility and be able to handle the increased tonnage of a once-a-week, commingled recycling program. That was our intention when we invested in state-of-the-art equipment here."

Yet a decade after Tucson's waste reduction goals were set, even Metropolitan Phoenix has a more successful recycling program, diverting 20 percent of its refuse compared to our 3 percent. Until Tucson's mayor and City Council show some faith in their own policy and give the green light to One and One, recycling can't make dollars and sense in The New Old Pueblo.

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