City to throw out trash bag system

Thursday, June 26, 2008 | 7:12 p.m. CDT; updated 2:34 p.m. CST, Monday, March 1, 2010

COLUMBIA — Residents soon will have one less thing to pick up from their yard. City officials are hoping that August will be the last time they send out crews to hand-toss rolls of black and blue trash bags into your driveway, your lawn — or in the middle of your prized garden.

The price of gas is affecting not only your pocketbook but also the price of the city’s trash bags, which are a petroleum product. The cost of the bags rose by 15 percent for fiscal 2008 and will rise another 20 percent in 2009, Solid Waste Utility manager Richard Wieman said.

Phone survey

Solid Waste conducted a phone survey to see the impact of a voucher system on recycling customers. After calling 1,000 people, here is what it found: - 600 people responded - 462 people said they were recyclers - 394 of the recyclers said they use the blue bags - 343 said they would continue to use blue bags with a voucher system What do you think? Please post a comment at the bottom of the story.

“Back in the early ’70s, when you were hand-tossing a package of bags to a few houses, it was a great idea,” Mary Ellen Lea, interim director of Public Works, told the City Council during a work session Wednesday. “Now there are over 30,000 houses out here, and we are delivering three different packages of bags. So, it’s become logistically a nightmare and an extremely expensive adventure.”

Blue and black bags are delivered three times a year and clear yard-waste bags twice a year. That equals eight rounds of delivery, each taking about a week. That’s a total of two months that delivery trucks are on the road and employees are building up their “pitching arms,” as Mayor Darwin Hindman said.

The city distributed more than 4 million bags in fiscal 2007.

Like your trusty postman, the city delivers bags in rain, snow or sleet, but their aim might not be as great.

“A package of 25 black trash bags is heavy. We’ve knocked people over, we’ve crashed into windows, knocked over mailboxes, flowers, yard lights — it’s not a good system,” Lea said.

In January, the city requested proposals for an alternative system. The lone bidder, Phoenix Recycling, proposed mailing vouchers that customers could redeem for trash and recycling bags at local businesses. Clear bags won’t be necessary once the city gets approval for a bioreactor, which will eliminate the need to separate yard waste from other refuse.

Phoenix Recycling would be paid to store and deliver bags based on the number of vouchers redeemed.

Wieman said the voucher system initially will cost the city more, but it will save money in the future and help the city reduce its carbon footprint.

“It’s not the delivery process that’s cheaper, it’s the actual redemption,” Wieman said. The city will save money, for example, if people don’t redeem their vouchers as frequently as bags are delivered now.

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said some people, like himself, will be able to go quite a while with the bags they already have.

“My wife and I have been accumulating bags since 1982, and I probably will not have to redeem a voucher for five years,” he said.

Even Lea said she, too, has stocked up a bunch of bags.

“Everybody gets 75 black bags a year. I don’t know what you guys use, I use one black bag a week. So, eventually you start accumulating bags,” she said.

Overall, the switch could save the city around $262,000. It also would allow the city to track the use of bags.

“We’ve asked that the voucher system is bar-coded so we can track who is returning the vouchers,” Wieman said. “We can tell you whether or not you are returning your blue bag (voucher). So, if an area of town isn’t redeeming their blue bag (vouchers), we want to go out there and provide informational material.”

The city tried to gauge interest in the change during a recent telephone survey of 600 residents.

“Eighty-seven percent of the people said they would not be impacted and would continue to recycle if they had to go to the store,” Wieman said. “Predominantly, the most common comment we got was ‘Great, we’re glad to finally see you changing it.’”

Community outreach will be essential. “I really would like to see us go out and talk with community groups and neighborhoods about changing this system and explain the new system to them,” Lea said.

Wade pitched a one-page, easy-to-read fact sheet explaining the program and the reasons behind it.

“People will respond to that,” Wade said. “I would like to propose that we move forward with this and get it implemented as soon as possible.”

Hindman agreed. “We’ve debated this for almost a year ... Obviously the staff would very much like to see this change take place and all the arguments against it are sort of speculative. I just think maybe we probably ought to give it a whack.”

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