Spouting rubbish

Dallas has run out of recycling excuses

It is Tuesday. It is garbage day. More importantly, it is recycling day--at least in this North Dallas neighborhood, where once a week city sanitation workers travel the streets to gather old newspapers, plastic, and aluminum, all in the name of saving the environment.

At least that's the way it's supposed to work.
Jack Moore is washing his car in his backyard at the corner of Preston Road and Del Roy Drive. He hoses it down. He rubs it dry. He sprays something on his tires. He's a busy kind of guy--a retiree who keeps his car, his yard, and his moustache all neatly trimmed.

Here, I think, eyeing him from across the street, is a surefire customer for the recyling program--a service that the city has provided to his area of town for eight months now.

"I haven't heard anything about it," Moore says, looking at me blankly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

But surely, I say, you must spot dozens of bright blue recycling bags in your alley on trash day? "I've seen some different colored bags besides black, but not blue that I recall," he says.

Actually, this is not totally surprising to me, considering that I have just had this exact same conversation with one of Moore's neighbors down the block, another retiree named V.V. Peters. (Actually, Peters does a little recycling on his own--in Richardson. "My son lives in Richardson," Peters tells me. "He picks up my newspapers a couple times a week and leaves it out for the Richardson pickup.")

Down the street from Peters and Moore, a young man walking his dogs shakes his head--even scoffs--when I ask about the recycling program. "Nobody's recycling at this house," he says.

Perhaps, I conclude, I am sampling the low end of the spectrum when it comes to the environmentally motivated. So I call Marc and Wendy Stanley--two thirtysomething, upwardly mobile, environmentally conscious Democratic Party activists who also live in this garbage district.

"We use a private company to pick up our recyclables once everyCR> two weeks," says Marc, who, by the way, is a capable lawyer who understands complicated matters easily (this will become relevant in a moment). "We pay them $9.95 a month to pick up in front of the house, and we've been doing it for two years."

But why pay when you can do it for free? I ask. Why not use the city's curbside program?

Says Marc: "I really don't understand it."
I can say the same--and I've been studying it for over a week now.
Here's what I don't understand:

* Two-fifths of this city is now on a curbside recycling program, but few people seem to know about it, and even fewer take advantage of it. (Ask city officials how many residents participate, and they can't--or won't--tell you. They will tell you that recyclables constitute only 5.3 percent of the total trash tonnage picked up citywide--a measly amount.)

* The city budgeted no money for a public education program when it started curbside recycling. "We did door hangers and notes in water bills," offers streets and sanitation assistant director George LaBrie.

* The city currently spends a whopping $1 million in tax dollars to pick up this piddling amount of recyclable material from some ridiculously small percentage of a mere two-fifths of the city.

* The city cut an incredibly bad deal with a private garbage company, Laidlaw Waste Systems, Inc., to which the city pays $696,900 a year to pick up recyclables at 57,000 homes--or $1.01 per household per month, regardless of whether a household participates. (By comparison, the city does its own pickup at the remaining 35,000 homes in the curbside program at a cost of $275,000 a year.)

* Laidlaw not only gets to charge for houses that don't participate, it has the very bad habit--according to dozens of complaints to Dallas city councilwoman Donna Halstead--of dumping people's carefully segregated recyclables into its garbage trucks and heading for the landfill. (Rod Moore, operations supervisor for Laidlaw, acknowledged that his company's CR>trucks have at times improperly dumped recyclables, but he believes many complaints result from confusion over Laidlaw's use of the same kind of trucks to pick up recyclables and garbage.)

* Even though the market for recyclable materials was at an all-time high this past year, commanding big prices, the city of Dallas gets no money and no fee offset from Laidlaw for the items it collects, resulting in no cost benefit to the city.

* Even though the market for old newspapers skyrocketed to as high as $160 a ton this past year, the city of Dallas lazily renewed a two-year-old contract it had to sell its old newspapers (collected curbside and in boxcars placed citywide) for $15 a ton. At the time the contract was signed in July, the contractor, Rock-Tenn company of Dallas, was buying old newspapers from its commercial accounts for about $80 per ton, according to Rock-Tenn's recycling facility general manager Chuck Wuchter. (The price is currently $10 to $20 a ton, Wuchter says.)

* Rock-Tenn not only buys the city's old newspapers, it buys the rest of the blue-bag items in the city-run curbside recycling program. But the payment formula is as lame as the one for newsprint, with no allowance for rising market prices. Last fiscal year, the city received only $47,000 for all the newspaper and blue-bag recyclables it sold to Rock-Tenn.

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