Over a Barrel

Tucson's blue-barrel recycling program has some up in arms.

Jefferson Park neighborhood resident Nina Carter, 75, struggles each week to bring her big blue recycling barrel out to the street.

"The wheels bog down into the dirt," she says. "It would be easier to move the recycling into the alley."

Carter, who serves as treasurer of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, complains that maneuvering the can out to the curb is difficult enough. But since she is located so close to the UA, the problem is compounded, because the streets--where she is required to put her barrel--are crowded with student parking.

"By the time you have cars parked on each side of the street and recycling cans, it's a traffic hazard ... and restricted parking just moves the parking and recycling problem further north," Carter says.

Carter is among many Tucson residents who are still adjusting to Tucson's new recycling program, which picks up 90-gallon blue barrels weekly rather than a small green bin every other week.

Barbara Lehmann, president of the Dodge/Flower Neighborhood Association, supports the recycling program wholeheartedly, but says the big blue barrels are proving to be a public eyesore. She complains that curb pickup, combined with an inadequate enforcement of city code, has made for trashy neighborhoods.

"If the city offered alley pickup of recycling, much of the blue clutter would be eliminated," says Lehmann.

But according to Clementa Mannarelli, planning administrator for the Solid Waste Management Department, that is never going to happen.

"Recycling in Tucson has never been picked up in alleys, because alley-recycling pickup leads to contamination problems," says Mannarelli.

By contamination, Mannarelli refers to the mixture of non-recyclable material with recyclable material. And a little bit of trash can ruin the whole batch.

"One badly contaminated bin could be enough to make a whole truckload of waste unfit for recycling, forcing the city to lose out on all that recyclable waste and then pay the cost of having it all used as landfill," she says. "Phoenix had a recycling alley pickup program that had to be discontinued because of contamination."

Lynne Peterson, past president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, says that contamination would not be an issue because recycling receptacles would be placed in the alley the day recycling is collected.

Of those items that contaminate recycling, plastic bags are the most common and are particularly troublesome. The bags get caught in the recycling machines. Other problems include people putting syringe needles and medical supplies in the bins.

"When workers get pricked with a dirty syringe needle, they have to get a series of shots and tests and may not be eligible to work again as a recycling sorter for a year," says Mannarelli.

The contamination issue aside, alleyway pickup is a problem because new garbage trucks are getting too large to navigate the narrow corridors. The Department of Risk Management has estimated that the city of Tucson has paid $80,000 for damage done by garbage trucks in alleys--often to things such as--gas meters, according to a Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association official.

In fact, city officials would like to do away with garbage pickup in alleys altogether, making for more curbside collection.

Peterson suggests the city find different garbage trucks.

"There are garbage trucks that are smaller," she says. "The savings of having a nice-looking neighborhood has to be taken into account. ... I don't think there has been enough effort to keep alley collection."

Despite these glitches--and another problem with wheels falling off the new barrels, thanks to a defect that city officials are scrambling to repair--many people are complying with the new recycling program and the amount of material being recycled has dramatically increased.

"Twenty-six percent of garbage is now being recycled on average," says Mannarelli, in sharp contrast to the 9 percent average prior to the rollout of the blue bins. In the end, SWMD estimates that this should make for some 45,000 tons of garbage being reused, compared to last year's 13,650 tons.

As for the curbside clutter, a city ordinance requires Tucson residents to have their barrels moved off the street and sidewalk before nightfall on the day of pickup. Residents who leave their barrels out are supposed to receive a notice, then a warning and then a $10 fee on their water bill.

Mannarelli insists the ordinance is being enforced. She notes that in one neighborhood, where notices went out to 639 homes, only 69 barrels were left out the following week.

Citing for continually contaminating recyclable refuse would follow a similar notification and fining process, but if the resident still did not comply, their can would be taken away.

Elderly or infirm residents who have trouble moving the 90-gallon can have three options, says Mannarelli. They can ask a neighbor for help, request a smaller can (60- and 30-gallon containers are also available) or request to be placed on a list where the collector will take your can on and off the street for you. But Mannarelli warns the last option is inefficient and costly to the city.

Lehmann argues that many, like her elderly neighbor, want to participate in the program, but don't want to be on a special list and don't want to ask their neighbors. Alley pickup is more convenient and makes the community look better, she says.

"It's discouraging to see the streets littered with the green and blue barrels," says Lehmann.