Curbside Recycling Bin Pilot Project short of its goal

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 | 1:39 p.m. CDT; updated 5:23 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 30, 2010
Rufus Fruge, 34, gathers recyclables on Garth Street for one of two new pilot collection routes Friday morning, Oct. 1, 2010. Layli Terrill, the waste minimization supervisor, says the pilot routes are experiments to see if reusable recycling containers are efficient or not. "It's been extremely successful. We have a lot of recycling in these areas that we didn’t see before," Terrill said.

*This story has been changed to clarify that there are two different recycling projects, which are related but not dependent on each other. An earlier version of this story did not clarify the relationship between the projects.

COLUMBIA — More than seven months have passed since Public Works Department staff and volunteers delivered bins to about 1,800 homes in north Columbia for the Curbside Recycling Bin Pilot Project.

The 12-month pilot project started Feb. 26 with the goal of seeing how bin distribution would affect recycling collection. Until Feb. 25, 2011, the city is not picking up recycling bags, only bins.


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The department wants to see a 5 percent increase in curbside recycling, according to a previous Missourian article. *That increase is part of a citywide campaign that Public Works is marketing to encourage recycling. Success for the pilot is not being gauged by the overall increase in curbside recycling.

Layli Terrill, waste minimization supervisor for Columbia, said the goal is based off a citywide percentage increase and takes into account all recycling pickup routes, not just the two that use bins in place of bags.  

Those two routes, which include the Parkade neighborhood, have seen a 49 percent increase since the start of the pilot program, collecting more than 125 tons of recyclable material. But when factored into the remaining 37 routes, the percentage increase citywide is up by only 2 percent since Jan. 2, 3 percent short of its goal, Terrill said.

“We still have months to make that happen," she said. "There is much more to consider besides an increase in recycling."

Pros and cons of using bins

Terrill confirmed an update provided to council members on concerns arising from the pilot project:

  • The bins aren’t cheap. The council already approved a $22,800 grant from the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District with an additional $7,600 matched by the city to purchase them.
  • If the bins are adopted citywide there will be even greater expenses. Public Works estimates it will cost $200,000 to supply all Columbia residences with bins.
  • It takes collectors 2 1/2 more hours to complete the routes in the pilot areas, often with assistance from other contractors. Smaller pickup routes would be necessary because of the extra time it takes to replace bins on the curb after dumping them.
  • Smaller routes would lead to a need for more trucks and manpower, a larger expense than the bins alone.
  • There has been some negative feedback about the bins. They do not currently have lids, so when it rains they fill with water and are difficult to pick up. On windy days paper flies out, and insects can get into the bins. Other comments included requests to put wheels on the bins for seniors and complaints about the lack of space to store them.

"That’s what a pilot is about, figuring out what works and what doesn’t," Terrill said. "Bins might not be the most viable option for Columbia residents."

However, citizen response has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. 

"We recycled anyways," said Carl Buchner, 79, who lives in the Parkade neighborhood and is participating in the project. "This is just an easier way to do it."

Another Parkade neighbor, Connie Baker, 42, also had good things to say about the project: "It's a lot better than the bags. I like it a lot."

According to Public Works, 30 households requested additional bins because two were not enough. Seven households had their bins stolen from the curb, usually when the residents were away over a weekend. Five households requested bins due to being new homeowners in the designated areas. About 20 households called Terrillfor their bins to be taken away.

She pointed out that while bags may be cheaper and less time consuming to pickup, the plastic bins are sturdier and could last for a long time.

“The goal is to increase recycling participation,” Terrill said. “We’re trying to make it convenient for residents."

An increase in recycling also means more material to sell. Currently, the recycled materials, excluding glass, are sold as commodities to the highest bidder.

Learning by example

Terrill said there was no specific city on which Columbia modeled its pilot project, but that doesn't mean it can't learn by a previous example.

Brady Wilson, director of environmental services for Rolla, recalled that the city used plastic bags for recycling collection when he moved there 12 years ago. He made the switch to rigid recycling bins for collection efficiency and ease of use for residents.

Wilson's best recollection is that the program started in the early to mid-1990s. Like Columbia, Rolla began with a pilot project.

"It's a good way to work out any problems before expanding," Wilson said.

With about 18,000 people, Rolla's population is just a fraction of Columbia's. Recycling with bins isn't mandatory, and Wilson said about 30 percent of eligible residents use them.

Rolla provides residents with recycling bins as part of its trash service. Bins and recycling are funded through a trash service fee on residents' utility bills and by selling the recycled material after collection.

Wilson said revenue generated through the program fluctuates. One month there might be a large profit but in another there will be a deficit. This is largely dependent upon fluctuating recycling markets and operating expenses. The average monthly revenue generated from curbside recycling is $20,000.

"Revenue received from collected material alone covers the majority of recycling expenses," Wilson said.

Rolla uses one person per operating vehicle to generate revenue through curbside recycling.  

Wilson suggested Columbia pick up recyclables every other week to save money. "It's not ideal, but it can work," he said.

Every-other-week pickup might help Columbia avoid buying new collection vehicles and hiring workers. "A lot of households don't set out their bins every week anyways," he said.

Wilson also suggested that larger bins be considered if Columbia expands curbside recycling citywide, especially if there were a change from a weekly pickup to a twice-monthly collection.

The Curbside Recycling Bin Pilot Project will end Feb. 25. An in-depth cost analysis on the results by Public Works will follow. The City Council will then determine whether to expand bin usage or look into other methods of recycling.

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Ray Shapiro October 6, 2010 | 7:34 p.m.

Why didn't the city just make these bins available to the hardcore recyclers who want to use them?
Plunking down large quantities of big blue bins don't mean a thing to those who prefer the blue bags or rather just throw all their trash in black garbage bags.
How much of those blue bags and bin trash really gets used again in recycled products anyway?

(Report Comment)
Chris Cady October 7, 2010 | 12:06 p.m.

You ask some good questions, but a pilot is an experiment. The huge increase in recycling in the pilot area suggests more people would recycle city-wide if they had bins. If the outcome of the pilot had been different, it would be good to know that before spending all that money on bins for the entire town.

There are some numbers missing from the equation. The article said bins for everyone would cost $200k, but what is the cost of blue bags for a year? Or over the lifetime of the bins? That has to be considered, and I'm sure the city is counting all the costs and savings. For additional perspective, what's the city's revenue from recycling? Is $200k a lot in comparison? What's the added revenue from a 50% increase in volume with the bins?

Otherwise, some people (not me) will say "$200k for plastic bins? Government wastage again!" Of course that's not the case.

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