ACC trims down on waste

“Does the whole place smell like this?” A Gainesville State environmental science student asked out of the corner of his mouth as he entered the 15-year-old Athens-Clarke County Recycled Material Processing Facility.  The stench, somewhere between industrial paint and stale beer, has some students covering their noses with their shirts.

“That’s probably just a new load of trash,” said Suki Janssen, waste reduction administrator for the Solid Waste Department.

Recycling Education Specialist Kristine Kobylus, hardhat and protective goggles in hand, stands ready to lead the group of 30 students on a tour of the facility. Through the wall behind her, amidst the reverb of steel beams and clanking conveyor belts, workers slog through mountains of shredded paper, broken down cardboard, sticky beer bottles and crushed plastic milk jugs.

“How many of you are recyclers?”

About 75 percent raised their hands. The response can be 25 percent for this age group, Janssen said, but over the past two years there’s been a definite increase.

Waste has a habit of not disappearing. So finding ways to ease the burden on the ACC landfill, which is nearing its current capacity, is a major priority for the Solid Waste Department. In a “good faith effort” to set “stepped, aggressive goals,” the department and the Athens-Clarke County government set a 25 percent waste reduction target below 2006 levels by the end of this fiscal year (June 30).

“We weren’t that far from 25 percent when the county set the goal,” says Solid Waste Director Jim Corley. Between fiscal years 2006 and 2009, the diversion rate increased 14 percent. Commissioners, staff and citizens committees have exchanged reduction tactics for over two years, but since waste reduction strategy remains officially unclear, the target has been pushed back another year, Solid Waste staff said. Commissioner and Solid Waste Task Force Co-Chair Kelly Girtz said there are “many moving parts” to the issue and readjusting timelines isn’t uncommon.

Now, feeling a time crunch on some options, the Solid Waste department is forging ahead on projects even though the task force hasn’t concluded its work – a move that won’t impact task force recommendations, committee co-chairs said.

The Solid Waste Task Force (SWTF), a citizens, industry and business committee formed to examine short-term, ordinance-driven waste reduction options, met throughout 2009 to establish best practices for reducing waste in Athens. After a fall presentation of SWTF recommendations, which included single stream recycling, a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) and tackling recycling in multi-family dwellings, Mayor Heidi Davison and Manager Alan Reddish asked that staff deliver cost estimates for further committee review, Girtz said. The task force will meet one last time on March 17 before presenting final recommendations to the Mayor and Commission, said Commissioner and Task Force Co-Chair Doug Lowry.

Single Stream

Many private haulers operating in the Clarke County area truck recyclables over to Gwinnett County’s single stream plant, Janssen said. The exodus takes revenue out of the county ACC makes money on reselling recycled materialsand skews waste reduction figures.

“We will switch back [to Athens] if they go single-stream,” said Jennifer Bond, owner of Bogart hauler Curbside Services, Inc. In an e-mail, Bond, who serves on the SWTF, said they chose Gwinnett “purely because it was single stream” for cost saving reasons.

Single stream makes recycling easier on citizens – no need to separate – and carries a potential 20 to 30 percent waste reduction impact, Janssen said. The county will be able to use the rear loading trash trucks as back-ups for their existing recycling fleet, another cost saving.

The MRPF operates under a private-public partnership with FCR, Inc., who owns the building, staffs the plant and finds end markets for the processed recyclables. ACC fills the plant with glass, plastic and paper and earns 80 percent of the profit.

Converting the MRPF to single stream carries a $1 million price tag, and with FCR contract negotiation deadlines looming, the Solid Waste department is already moving to find funding pending final approval by the Mayor and Commission. Corley said he felt the idea had wide support.

“We didn’t feel that was too much of a leap,” he said.

Janssen said FCR isn’t interested in paying for the retrofit, and the department has applied for a $1.5 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) to help pay for the modifications. They money may not come from the grant, but Girtz said he’s confident the support and funding will appear.

CHaRM

The Solid Waste department wants to convert their former offices on College Ave. into a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials. Corley and Janssen pitched the idea to the SPLOST committee and tacked it onto their EECBG application.

With such a cheap price tag (under $200,000), funding shouldn’t be hard to find, Girtz said.

While it won’t have a huge impact on waste reduction, the CHaRM will divert environmentally harmful materials that can end up in the landfill and will hopefully end myths that certain items aren’t actually recycled when dropped off at the landfill, Janssen said.

“There’s a sense that we aren’t going to do the right thing,” she said.

Apartments

Dustin Rinehart, community manager at The Reserve student housing, walked into his office one morning to find a petition of 200 signatures sitting on his desk. Each name demanded recycling options for the complex, so Rinehart immediately called Janssen to see what choices he had. After weighing space and location concerns, the department dropped off two 8-yard bins. Rinehart said The Reserve’s 612 residents have “a lot of potential for recycling,” and that tenant response is phenomenal.

“Every week, we get multiple calls from tenants wanting recycling services,” Janssen said. But that’s up to property managers to decide. Requiring recycling infrastructure at all multi-family dwellings would be a boon for the county’s waste reduction efforts. The Solid Waste Task Force called multi-family dwellings a “challenging, but very significant area for waste reduction.”

ACC bids alongside private haulers to service multi-family dwellings for trash pickup, Corley said. Whenever the property managers want recycling services, the county is very competitive. It’s just a matter of managers wanting it, he said.

“When it’s straight trash, we don’t compete.”

The county can’t require private businesses to use their waste services, but they could demand on-site recycling infrastructure. Janssen and Corley said they hoped the Mayor and Commission pass an ordinance requiring recycling at these sites and they are preparing by working with planning to develop zoning practices for new and old complexes.

What’s next?

“We are great, private haulers are sketchy,” Corley said. Many companies do a great job tracking pick-ups and keeping orderly books, others aren’t that transparent, Corley said. Waste reduction is necessary for the whole county, not just the urban service district. “We’re not reaching it as a community,” he said. He’d like to see clearer audits of private haulers – where and what are they dumping and recycling. The numbers need to be “as accurate as possible,” he said.

Solid Waste now has a permit to compost at the landfill, and biosolid (treated fecal matter) and mulch compost will be officially decomposing on a concrete slab by the summer, Janssen said. Food scrap composting, both institutional and residential, is a ways off.

As far as the 25 percent reduction is concerned, Janssen said a single stream conversion would single handedly push the county past that goal. But Corley and Girtz want more.

“The goal should be stricter,” Corley said. “25 percent is not much.” He said he’d like to see a federal law “with teeth to it.”

“I’m a little frustrated that there have been these little steps in the process,” Girtz said. “I want a comprehensive approach, but if a comprehensive approach begins with a few specific items, I’m okay with that. I just don’t want it to stop there.”

POP-OUTS

Recycling Economics

  • Georgia is home to over 900 recycling related companies.
  • Plastics employ over 36,000 Georgians.
  • Paper’s payroll tops $1 billion.

Source: Department of Community Affairs 2006 study

Glass to Gwinnett

In 2006, private haulers delivered over 6,000 tons of recyclables to the RMPF and accounted for almost 50 percent of the all materials processed at the facility. By the end of FY09, that number dropped below 3,000.

Source: Solid Waste Department Annual Reports

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