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Common Facts and Misconceptions about Recycling

Q: How does our state compare in terms of being a “green” recycling state?
A: Colorado is not doing a great job in recycling (1) (less than 20% of the municipal waste stream was recycled or composted in 2009 (2)) relative to the rest of the nation (34% nationwide). Less than half of the counties in the state have recycling available for residents at the curb (3). Some areas of the state have been very active and successful in recycling however, these areas and industries have not been able to compensate for the rest of Colorado.

Q: Does recycling make sense in Colorado? I have heard rumors that plastics and/or other materials either sit in warehouses or are thrown in landfills.
Recyclables have value and once separated from trash and collected as recyclables, are rarely thrown into landfills (4). Recyclables are sold to markets for a profit (revenues can vary depending on local and international economies). For example, in early 2011 the regional value for sorted and baled cardboard sold as a commodity had a value of $160- $170/ton, mixed plastic was $160-$180/ton, and aluminum was over $1,500/ton (5). It does not make business sense to separately collect recyclables and then pay to put something in a landfill that has value in the markets. (6) It is worth noting that economics for recycling are more challenging in Colorado compared to coastal states with Front Range landfill rates around $11-15/ton and our distance to some markets.

Q: How is recycling is a job creator? Does it help or hurt small businesses and small waste haulers?
On a per ton basis, recycling can sustain 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration7. The State of North Carolina reports that job gains in recycling have outgrown other sectors during the recent recession and for every 100 recycling jobs created in the state just 10 jobs were lost in the waste hauling and disposal industry (8). Colorado is losing its fair share of recycling jobs by landfilling so much.

Q: Is it true that recyclables from Colorado are mainly shipped to China or other non- domestic manufacturers?
Recycle America (Denver) and the Boulder County recycling facility both report that they sold over 90% of their recyclables to U.S. manufacturers. In 2009, more than 960,000 tons of recyclable materials were used to manufacture new materials in Colorado (9).

Q: Can recycling reduce overall green house gas emissions even taking into account the recycling trucks on the road and transportation impacts?
The embedded energy recovered in recyclables dramatically outweighs the emissions from transportation10. For example, the “break even” point for trucking aluminum (the point where the GHG emissions from transportation outweigh the potential GHG emissions avoided through recycling) is 116,000 miles, or the same as driving from New York City to Los Angeles 47 times (11). In 2009 Colorado alone conserved 640,000 tons of coal by using recycled steel and glass in the State (12).

Q: If recycling makes so much sense, shouldn’t recycling service be free for all households?
Someday it may be free, but right now recycling is only cheaper than trash service. On average, a collection hauler will charge a household around $3-$5/month to collect recycling and around $8 to $12/month (or more) to collect trash. The actual recyclables revenues are only a portion of a hauler’s total budget and expenses. To collect recyclables haulers must still purchase trucks and carts/bins, staff the trucks to collect the materials, purchase fuel, provide maintenance, etc.. These costs are nearly the same for recycling as for trash. However recycling, unlike trash, once collected can be sold as a commodity, and haulers must pay to dispose of trash in a landfill.

Q: What role do local governments play in  trash regulations and control?
Enacting regulations for hauler operations/licensing or contracting for services does not equate to a city taking over trash/recycling collection. Trash/recycling service, whether provided by multiple haulers or a single hauler requires some oversight in the interests of protecting the public health and environment. For this reason, Colorado statutes provide counties and cities with the powers to enact regulations. The Colorado Municipal League supports local governments’ legal authority to be a stakeholder in local solid waste management for residences up to 7 units. CML feels that local government actions are appropriately balanced by the rights of citizens and businesses to register complaints, submit a referendum petition and vote for elected officials.

Q: Does contracting for trash and/or recycling collection take away personal choice in selecting a hauler?
In neighborhoods or cities that move from an “open” system (where citizens select their own hauler) to a system where the government or HOA selects the hauler, residential choice of a hauler is typically lost. It is important to note that a contract still promotes competition and capitalism. Under a contract, haulers bid competitively to provide service for a community/neighborhood and the most responsive bid wins.

Q: Do single hauler contracts cause rates to increase for households or reduce the services they get because there is less competition?
Single-hauler contracts typically result in lower prices for households (because of economies of scale, and hauler desire to be awarded all homes in a town)14. Attaching CPI or other inflators keeps the rates lower. In most cases the loss of household choice of hauler is balanced by an increase in services for households, greater safety in neighborhoods, a reduction in traffic and noise caused by collection vehicles, and a reduction in road damage and less pollution. Under a bid competition, haulers often add services to “sweeten the pot” for the contract, resulting in value added services for all households.

Q: Are small haulers at a disadvantage in the bidding process for single hauler contracts?
Some small haulers may be at a competitive disadvantage however, small haulers have been awarded contracts in the state, and have used them to “grow” their business successfully15. It is up to each City to establish the bid requirements and specifications for choosing the winning bid.

Q: Is it true that any changes to the status quo of an existing solid waste collection system will increase costs for all households, haulers, and businesses?
There are some changes to the trash system that can lead to lower costs. Examples include: 1) If there are many haulers serving the same streets, costs can generally be reduced if fewer trucks are serving the same area, and/or if haulers serve all the homes in particular districts or neighborhoods, allowing routes to be efficient, and providing sufficient customers to reach “economies of scale” and efficient utilization of equipment. Districting, city contracts, or home owners associations are examples of these efficiencies. 2) Moving to provide recycling for all customers will reduce the cost of recycling compared to the fees when only a few customers select recycling (again, economies of scale). Thus, universal recycling also reduces the cost of recycling to those wishing for curbside service.

Q: Can local governments provide collection services as effectively as the private sector?
Both local governments and the private sector have the ability to provide cost-effective and responsive trash, recycling and organics collection. One of the communities with the highest diversion rate in the state, Loveland, has municipal collection with rates ranging from $13.75 to $23.75 including the collection of recycling and yard waste and extensive drop-off sites and materials all while operating as a self-sufficient enterprise fund.

Q: Does Pay As You Throw (PAYT) cost more for the city, haulers, and households?
City costs: Two large statewide surveys (WI, IA) showed that PAYT led to no increase in costs (or town workloads) in 2/3 of communities implementing PAYT.

Hauler costs: PAYT itself can be implemented in ways that lead to virtually no cost increase (bag programs without special cans or billing, keeping the same collection system, etc).17 If the hauler does not currently provide recycling service there will be some costs associated with new carts and setting up collection routes. These are typically passed through to the households in the rates. Recycling is cheaper than trash, but not free, as trucks must still stop by the house, collect materials, and deliver them to a recycling center.

Household costs: PAYT works by charging residents for the volume of trash they dispose and encouraging recycling. Under a PAYT program some households will pay more (those throwing away a lot of trash and not recycling), others will not see significant changes in their rates, and other households (avid recyclers, small households, elderly households, etc.) will pay less.

Q: Is making people pay for more trash unfair  to large families or large generators?
PAYT works under the basic environmental law principal of polluter pays. The premise is that the person or entity responsible for the pollution, in this case trash and its related impacts on landfills, water, air, etc., is the one responsible for paying the costs. Unlike programs where everyone pays to benefit all regardless of personal use or responsibility, polluter pays requires each person to be responsible for their own pollution. Under unlimited trash disposal, a small generator (i.e. one bag disposer) subsidizes services for a large generator (a household with 5 or 6 bags). Under PAYT, each household only pays for what they throw away. This is a more equitable system than unlimited trash disposal. PAYT has been adopted by over 7,100 communities nationwide (18).

Q: What impacts does PAYT have on small haulers?
PAYT does not put small haulers out of business. PAYT can be enacted under an ordinance in an “open” system (citizens can choose from multiple haulers) to provide a level playing field for all haulers without prohibiting any hauler from competing in the marketplace (19). PAYT with embedded recycling service (as PAYT is often implemented) is a business opportunity for haulers. Under a PAYT system haulers may be required to offer recycling to all households for an appropriate fee – leading to more corporate revenues. They may also use the PAYT experience to expand their capabilities and are therefore ready and experienced when other communities select PAYT. Several haulers have used PAYT as a competitive business advantage to distinguish themselves from haulers that provide basic trash-only service.

Q: Does Pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) lead to more illegal dumping?
Overall, PAYT does not lead to increased illegal dumping. Hundreds of communities with PAYT have been asked about the impact on illegal dumping. About 20% say there is an issue that lasts about 3 months, and that enforcement helps20. Research on illegally dumped waste in PAYT communities shows the majority is not household in origin (and thus, not due to PAYT) and the most common household items dumped are bulky items (appliances, sofas, etc.). PAYT programs should have convenient methods for citizens to get rid of bulky items (tags, fees, appointments, coupons for one free dump, etc.) to avoid illegal dumping issues.