Ask ELi: Are East Lansing Recycling Rates Up?

Friday, January 29, 2016, 12:55 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image courtesy City of East Lansing

As part of our public service, ELi invites readers to submit issues they want ELi to investigate. Today we’re combining a reader question and a City Councilmember comment to bring you more information about East Lansing’s new single-stream, curbside recycling program. This follows on ELi’s report about the corporate sponsorships of our new program.

A reader asked: “I work in the student section of the city and see a majority of students do not know the difference between [the City-issued trash and the City-issued recycling] containers. MOST of the recycling containers in Bailey are filled with trash. How does the City deal with this?”

The answer: We asked Cathy DeShambo, Environmental Services Administrator for the City of East Lansing, to respond to this claim.

DeShambo responded, “I/staff would not agree with the broad brush in which the reader has painted the Bailey area, nor would I/staff agree with reader's characterization of the majority of students. We have many fantastic recyclers amongst the student population and they have been enthusiastic and excited about getting carts as many of them come from communities that recycle with carts.”

She notes that, “We, in fact, took some knocks from students who were frustrated that we didn't roll out carts sooner! With that said, we acknowledge that there are properties and even small pockets within the City that struggle with compliance more than others and it is something that we planned for in this transition.”

According to DeShambo, “Lidded carts have many advantages but certainly one potential disadvantage is the inability to see cart contents and protect against contamination.” In other words, it can be hard for drivers of the recycling truck as well as others to see if a recycling cart includes trash. If there’s trash in a recycling cart, and it gets dumped into the single-stream recycling, it can contaminate a whole truck full of recycling. That means a single bad cart can cause an entire truckload of recycling to go to the landfill.

But DeShambo says the City was prepared for this: “We anticipated that this could be an issue and that education and inspections would be necessary to keep contamination rates at our previously low levels (less than 2%). We have taken several measures in those areas where trash in recycling carts appears to be more prevalent. For the student rental population, we have sent out additional educational materials through the property managers and utilized the CRC [Community Relations Coalition] interns for door to door communication.”

And there’s more: “We also addressed cart placement in those materials, as this is another common issue that we deal with. We also put a rear load truck on certain routes so that staff can actually lift the lid on a cart prior to dumping to ensure the cart contains recyclables only. ‘Oops’ tags are left on carts that are not in compliance with an explanation as to why the cart was not serviced. All of our trucks have cameras that allow the driver to view the contents of the cart as it is being serviced.”

“Finally,” says DeShambo, “and possibly most importantly, staff attempts as many in person conversations as possible to bring around compliance. These seem to oftentimes be the most effective means of bringing about compliance. Staff have numerous examples of houses that were struggling with compliance until staff was able to make contact with the residents. We have seen some pretty big offenders turn around with this method.”

As regular ELi readers may recall, East Lansing’s City Council decided to use the City of Lansing’s single-stream recycling program after weighing options presented by Department of Public Works Director Scott House. According to DeShambo, “The City of Lansing has been very happy with the quality of our curbside recyclable materials so far. We continue to have very low contamination rates but we know this will be an ongoing issue that will always require attention and education.”

Are we recycling more and saving fuel since we instituted the single-stream pick-up with a new hybrid truck? Councilmember Shanna Draheim wrote to ELi, in response to our article about corporate grant support for our new program, that “in the fourth quarter of last year: curbside volume increased by 67% and fuel use (with the new [hybrid recycling] truck) was reduced by 44%. Huge gains for our recycling program!!”

Fuel-use reduction: I asked DeShambo whether she could confirm that fuel use had been reduced by 44% with the new hybrid truck. She confirmed the 44% fuel reduction and explained that City staff compared “the fuel used by the three recycling trucks that previously serviced our curbside routes during the 4th quarter 14 [meaning 2014] with the fuel used by our hybrid truck and the truck that helps the hybrid for part of some routes for the 4th quarter” of 2015.

Trash decrease? When I shared Councilmember Draheim’s comment with DeShambo to ask her to confirm the numbers, I also wrote to say that in order to know if recycling has increased, we actually have to ask if trash has decreased. I used our house as an example: "In my house, we took all the recycling to MSU’s [recycling] center before, so we are not recycling more [or throwing out less], but we are recycling easier and with no use of gas." Many people also saved up recycling in anticipation of the new program, which  meant a surge of recyling in the fourth quarter of 2015.

So, in addition to asking about recycling incrases, I asked DeShambo, "Has trash decreased? If so, by how much?”

DeShambo answered, “We are seeing some decrease in refuse about 6% for this same period,” meaning from the fourth quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter of 2015. So while curbside recycling is up--actually up 82% from the fourth quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter of 2015 according to updated numbers--trash is down only about 6% in weight, suggesting - as I thought might be the case - that a lot of what is going on is that people were either saving up recycling in anticipation of the new curbside program (so the fourth quarter 2015 bump was mostly because of saved-up materials), or they simply switched from recycling elsewhere to recycling at the curb. East Lansing did not used to take cardboard and boxboard, and many people used to save that to take to MSU’s recycling center. If those were previously going mostly in the trash, then the trash should have dropped more than 6% in weight.

DeShambo notes, “we did not start conducting actual weigh-ins of our refuse trucks until January. Our drivers were pretty used to having a full load (which is 20 yards on a refuse truck). However, with the increase in recycling, we realized those loads now need to be weighed because they are likely not at capacity. What we have seen since starting the weigh-in has supported this theory and it will be interesting to see what the data says in another couple of months.” So the 6% trash reduction figure might actually go up and the 82% recycling increase might go down.

DeShambo adds, “You may also be interested to know that we have seen about a 30% drop in volume at our [recycling] drop off-site and we are looking at what makes sense long-term for that service. We have also started a pilot with MSU that allows us to haul our drop-off site materials to them. We are only a few weeks into this pilot so there is no substantive data to share yet but it is a possible future cost savings avenue for us and a partnership that we are excited to pursue.”

How much is the new program costing? Recycling costs the City money, as does landfilling. So I asked DeShambo, “If it is possible to calculate this without too much staff time, how much is the recycling program currently costing us in actual taxpayer expense now versus this time last year? (I would assume the cost has gone up since you’re collecting vastly more material, but that’s just a guess.)”

DeShambo answered, “As far as recycling costs currently, you are probably aware that recycling markets are down and that downturn is certainly reflected in the prices we are currently paying. Since we pay per ton, the increase in our tonnage is going to equate to more cost. But the per-ton cost has been rising regardless due to the weak markets. Our intergovernmental agreement with the City of Lansing allows for better pricing as markets improve (which our Granger [recycling] contract did not), but we may not see much movement in that area for a while yet.”

She gave some hard numbers: “To put it in perspective for the 4th quarter that we have been referring to throughout this discussion [2014 versus 2015], we paid about $8,500 more for our curbside material transfer, haul and processing than we did for the same quarter in 14 [meaning 2014]. However, we are realizing efficiencies in staffing and equipment with the bi-weekly, automated program that should more than offset those increased costs for material transfer, haul and processing.”

 

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[Note: When this article was originally published, the rate of increase for recycling from fourth quarter 2014 to fourth quarter 2015 was believed to be 67%. A few hours after the article was published, DeShambo wrote to say, "we received notice from Lansing this morning that our December recycling volumes were actually higher than initially reported by 28 tons which pushes our 4th quarter volume numbers up, obviously, and puts our volume increase around 82%." The article has been corrected to reflect that number.]

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