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When cities are trying to make change and “move the needle” on waste diversion and recycling, they often find they are in a conundrum. The city might have a preconceived notion that it needs to keep everything as it has been; any system improvement is viewed as adding something more. This approach is expensive, of course, because it inherently keeps all the current costs and adds more with the new diversion services. Costlier still, if a new procurement is used to make the change, some increase in price for the current services also will be likely.

A better management approach is to seek integral change—adjustments within the status quo that make room for additional waste reduction and recycling without drastically cutting services or increasing prices. As solid waste managers often say when assisting their constituents, “It’s not more, it’s just different.” So, why pay more?

Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB), McLean, Virginia, currently is working with three cities that are looking to improve waste reduction and recycling while containing costs. Two (we’ll call them City A and City B) are involved in procurements, while the third (that’s City C) is currently using city forces and contemplating if it can use those resources or will need to procure private sector services.

The tale of City A

City A has a population of just over one-quarter million and recently released an invitation to bid on its curbside collection services and recyclables processing. The city knew for certain, in talking with the incumbent processing contractor, that the per ton cost for processing was going to increase significantly. With the universal trends in processing—more expensive equipment, new and more varied types of plastic and overall lightweighting for most items—increasing processing costs are a common experience across the country. The city also anticipated at least a marginal increase in the per household cost for collection, even though the current prices had been adjusted by consumer indices throughout the contract.

After conducting focus groups and interviews with city residents and stakeholders and considering best practices as advised by GBB, the city warmed to the idea of adjusting its current level of service at the curb. Presently, residents can set out unlimited amounts of bagged waste and bulky items every week. To provide a clear understanding of the cost ramifications of that level of service, the city bid out the status quo plus two alternates, both of which reduced the amount of material residents can set out per week. All the resulting bids were slightly more than the current price, with the status quo being the most expensive. The margin of difference among all the prices is not significant (though, multiplied by tens of thousands of customers, it does add up over time). What is significant is that the city found a way it might be able to “add” a waste reduction and diversion protocol without adding more programs.

As expected, the recycling processing bids were significantly higher than the current contract. This is why the bid solicitation stipulated—as will the contract—revenue sharing that more heavily favored the city than the current contract does. The city will receive 75 percent of net revenue, and the contractor will keep 25 percent. GBB has done analysis of historical pricing for the region going back to 2007, which shows that this stronger share of the revenue will help offset the processing price increase, which as mentioned previously was a certainty.

The tale of City B

In City B, preparation of the procurement is in the initial phases. The primary issues the city wants to address with the procurement are 1) contain an anticipated cost increase and 2) increase waste diversion.

This community of nearly 450,000 people not only has unlimited set-out at the curb, it also has twice-weekly collection of garbage. The second collection day is, of course, the single biggest opportunity to contain costs for residents. In City A, the proposed change to unlimited set-outs was compensated for by provision of an optional, negotiated rate with the selected contractor for removal of bulky set-outs, if the resident should so choose. For a variety of financial and political reasons, this is a much less likely option for City B, and so unlimited set-outs likely will continue, strengthening the argument for cancelling or reassigning the second collection day.

Waste diversion and recycling performance—i.e., the tons and percentages—can be addressed with three integral changes that do not constitute simply adding something more: transitioning from an opt-in recycling program to one that has universal distribution of carts, moving collection of yard waste to a separate day from other materials and using a cart for the collection of yard waste that is currently bagged. The line from more carts on the curb to more tons at the material recovery facility (MRF) is a straight one, and the city knows from research led by the GBB team that there are interested residents who don’t even know that they can get recycling service. Furthermore, it is a known issue that organic material, like brush, often is mixed with bulky items, like furniture or boxes, which results in all that material being co-collected and disposed of rather than recycled or processed for beneficial reuse. If yard waste can get collected separately from bulky items and subsequently delivered to a proper reuse or composting facility, that ought to result in a greater number of tons being diverted from landfill in City B on day one of the new contract. In this way, as in City A, waste diversion and recycling can increase just by changing how people do what they already do without adding anything more.

The third integral change, as mentioned, is to begin using carts for collection of yard waste, which currently is bagged. This might seem like adding something more, but GBB has been working with City B to analyze ways to reassign and adjust resources to do this as efficiently as possible. One possibility is to switch recycling collection to a larger, 96-gallon cart that is collected every other week and then repurpose the legacy 64-gallon carts (which the city owns) for yard waste collection.

The tale of City C

In our third city, a much smaller community of slightly more than 100,000 people, a citizen committee is deep in discussions regarding curbside service. In City C, municipal forces provide twice-weekly removal of all material. Recyclables and yard waste are not collected separately. The prospect of adding curbside collection of recyclables definitely brings with it the prospect of more: more capital costs to provide containers and perhaps to purchase more trucks, more operational costs to hire more staff and drive more routes and more related costs such as outreach and education. More per ton processing costs also are possible if delivery to a MRF costs more than delivery to the disposal facility, though, as noted, those costs can be offset by revenue sharing.

In a climate where provision of more services by government can be politically sensitive, solid waste managers are under intense pressure to improve performance without simply adding programs and costs.

City C, much like City B, has that second collection day each week that it could use to help “pay for” recycling. However, no yard waste facility is available, so the city does not expect to add yard waste diversion in the foreseeable future. This means that garbage and trash set-out will remain sizable, even with exceptionally successful single-stream recycling collection. Furthermore, unlike City A or City B, City C currently does not have much else to adjust or manipulate to increase waste diversion and recycling: No containers can be repurposed, no existing MRF contract can be renegotiated and no collection contract terms can be revised. The city does have unlimited once-weekly set-out of bulky items, but the fact of the matter is that use of the program by residents is not significant enough to justify reducing it.

For these and other reasons, the addition of curbside recycling in City C likely will result in some immediate cost increases related to collection and certainly will be viewed by many residents as something more that they are paying for on a monthly basis. Leaders and solid waste managers will need to make the case that integrated waste management is a core function of municipal services rather than “nice to have” or simply something more.

Breaking through the mental block

In a climate where provision of more services by government can be politically sensitive, solid waste managers are under intense pressure to improve performance without simply adding programs and costs. Even leadership that supports the diversion goals and outcomes is reticent to be perceived as adding more simply for its own sake.

Cities can break through the mental block of “don’t change anything but change the results” and seek integral changes to programs that adjust how residents access their waste diversion services without cutting them.

For City A, managers are making adjustments that will let them catch up the pricing to the current costs while keeping their aim true to recycle and divert more material from disposal. City B will have to look very hard at efficiencies and services to be able to recycle and divert more without charging much higher rates. In City C, leaders will need to show how more really will be more—more efficient service, more conservation of resources and more opportunity for the city to progress as a marketable place to live and do business.

Kate S. Vasquez is a senior consultant with Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., McLean, Virginia. She can be contacted via email at kvasquez@gbbinc.com.