Piling Up

As material prices plummet, does Juneau still have the will to expand recycling?

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008

Six months ago, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said the city could have curbside recycling come July 1, 2009.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

On Wednesday, he conceded that timetable was too optimistic.

"I thought it realistic at the time, but it's proving not to be," Botelho said. "... I'm expecting we'll eventually get there. Seems to always take longer than I'd like to reach these goals, but it has to be well thought out."

Complex regulatory procedures, money and ideology are holding things up.

The bulk of the city's existing trash services are handled by the private sector. Capital Disposal, a subsidiary of the international $20 billion company Waste Management, owns and operates the city's only landfill at 5600 Tonsgard Court. Dumping there is subject to Waste Management's tipping fees, which are based on weight in most cases.

Arrow Refuse, a monopoly regulated by a state commission, is the city's residential trash pick-up service and pays Waste Management a contractual rate of $120 per ton to dump at the landfill.

If the city wants to start curbside recycling, Arrow Refuse must agree to give up its rights as state-sanctioned monopoly and transfer them to the city. That, presumably, would only happen if the city can contractually guarantee Arrow a continued stake in the trash business.

Negotiations among the parties are ongoing.

If the rights are transferred, then curbside recycling would be a legal possibility - but the parties would still have to come up with money for the capital investment in the program.

According to projections from a solid waste study released in February that the city commissioned, the operations side of a curbside recycling program could pay for itself if participation is high enough. The study estimated that if about a quarter of all of Juneau's trash went to recycling instead of the landfill, the savings in tipping fees would offset the cost of the new service.

About 5 to 10 percent of the city's waste currently goes to the recycling drop-off center in the old incinerator building by the landfill, said Waste Management District Manager Eric Vance.

The study's projections did not factor in capital costs of buying land and building a new packing center for recyclables that was part of its model, nor the precipitous decline in market prices for recyclable materials, a product of the ongoing turmoil in the global economy.

Vance said a ton of newsprint in September was worth $165 but only $10 now. Shipping containers filled with newsprint and other similarly affected materials are on standby until prices rebound, Vance said. Similar stockpiling is happening at recycling centers across the country.

"We're speculating in February, hopefully it'll bounce back," Vance said.

Juneau's voluntary drop-off program for recycling began after Waste Management's incinerators shut down in 2004 due to cost, age and tightening environmental regulations. Before that, the landfill had an estimated 75 years before hitting capacity, Vance said. Four years later and with a peak elevation of 68 feet, the landfill has between 25 and 30 years left, Vance said.

When landfills do reach capacity, they're typically turned into parks or open space in cooperation with local planners, Vance said.

Expanding recycling could extend the life expectancy and delay the expensive and unpleasant process of building a new landfill - two other city-owned sites in the Lemon Creek area have already been designated in the long-term comprehensive plan - but how it affects customers and taxpayers has its own ideological snags. In Botelho's words, it boils down to this:

"How much more will consumers be willing to pay, if any, were we to go to curbside recycling?"

Universalizing curbside recycling in Juneau maximizes participation and minimizes the per person cost. It could even create a net savings under the right conditions, proponents say. But nonparticipants don't want to be forced into paying for a service they don't use.

The alternative is a pro-rated service that gives everyone the choice to opt in or out, though limited participation could kill its financial feasibility or lead to taxpayer subsidies.

"The cost to every individual will be less if it's mandatory," Juneau Assembly member Bob Doll said. "But it will not be popular, there's no question about that."

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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