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.

This is what I do understand: Recycling in Dallas is a joke.
The first, big hint I had of this recently was that the person in charge of recycling for the city of Dallas does not herself recycle.

LuAnn Anderson, who has been the director of streets and sanitation for 60 days now, lives in Oak Cliff, like me. The city does not offer curbside recycling anywhere south of the Trinity. Therefore, the enviromentally conscious of Oak Cliff drive around the city, our cars heaped with trash, looking for drop-off sites. Anderson, though, only recycles one item on a regular basis--her aluminum cans, which she sells to a nearby aluminum recycling plant on WestmorelaCR>nd Road. She says she gives her newspapers "to kids who knock on my door collecting newspapers." (In the nine years I've lived in Oak Cliff no kid has ever knocked on my door looking for old newspapers.) And bottles? "I don't have a location I use," she says.

Huh?
"Well, what I do have I put in the trash, which goes to the landfill," she says. "I'm sorry."

So am I. For a lot of reasons. In the two hours I spent with Anderson, I could get very little detailed information out of her about recycling, period. She didn't know the name of the company that the city sells its blue-bag contents to (Rock-Tenn). She didn't know any of the details of the Laidlaw contract. She couldn't tell me, among many other things, which streets currently get curbside recycling, or how many people participate, or where the city igloos are located. She'd have to research all of that, she told me, and get back to me--which she did for the next three working days.

"Since I've been in this job, I've been focusing my efforts on the future, not on the past," she said, referring to a new, all-in-one recycling contract that is going out for bid soon.

But if you don't know where you've been, or where you are, how in the world can you know where you're going?

(To be fair, city council members and community folk say Anderson's track record in code enforcement and street repair--she's been with streets and sanitation 25 years--is terrific. Unlike most city officials, she's available to people and open to change. Clearly, recyling is simply not her forte.)

But if Anderson was foggy on recycling, Sheila Overton, the city's recycling coordinator--whose sole responsibility is to understand and promote recycling in Dallas--was downright clueless. Overton sat in on my meeting with Anderson and was also unable to answer the most basic questions about the city's recycling efforts. However, she was quite well-versed on other people's recycling programs--which, strangely enough, she kept trying to palm off as her own.

"We" are taking people to grocery stores and teaching people how to shop, she told me at one point--finally conceding, after a tortuous series of questions, that it was actually the League of Women Voters who offered this service. She also conceded that she had no idea whether anyone had actually gone on such an excursion.

"We" are teaching DISD students about the environment, she told me at another point--meaning, I ascertained after we had explored this together fully--that she hawks a national teaching curriculum created by Keep America Beautiful. (She went on for quite a while about one particular exercise in which children peel an apple and are thus "able to comprehend that the earth and all its resources are very small.")

None of which, I kept thinking to myself, helps me get my Perrier bottles to a place where they can be metamorphosed into winter coats or street paving or whatever they do with them.

But let's not be hard on the bureaucrats--after all, if they had the stuff of captains of industry, they wouldn't be working at City Hall in the first place. It's the policymakers--the politicians--who could turn this around, and that's not likely to happen any time soon around here.

"The recycling in this city has always been a low priority," says Dallas city councilman Bob Stimson. "I still have people come up to me and say, 'Why the heck are we pushing recycling? We have this big ol' landfill out there.' And I give them my 'good-for-Mother Nature' speech."

Stimson is one of the rare birds on the council who is into recycling--he, too, lives in the barren, city-service scrub that is Oak Cliff, and he drags his trash to three different recycle locations around town (he also has a backyard compost heap). And though he has been very vocal about recycling since he came on the council several years ago, the best he's been able to do is make citywide curbside recycling a three-and-a-half-year project instead of five.

Stimson is enlightened because he used to live in Oregon, wCR>here recycling is a high art form. In fact, Stimson's such a purist that he stopped drinking libations in green bottles for nine months because he didn't think he could deposit green bottles in the brown-glass igloos. (You can.)

Contrast Stimson with his fellow council members, three of whom I called at random last week to size up their recycling habits. All three, by the way, live in North Dallas and have the luxury of curbside pickup for cans, plastics, and newspapers.

Donna Blumer only recycles newspapers, she told me. "We don't use enough bottles and cans and so forth to put them out," she said of her and her husband. (What's enough--seven tons?)

Donna Halstead says she puts out all the blue-bag items. And does she make the extra effort to dispose of bottles, which the city won't take curbside? "I don't recycle bottles," she says. "Frankly, I don't usually buy things that are in bottles." (Possible.)

Mayor Ron Kirk does the blue-bag program, and he used to take his bottles to a church on Mockingbird Lane until they removed the igloos, he says.

As far as expanding recycling citywide, Kirk is cavalier. "We'll get there," he says. "Would I like to do it now? Yeah. But would I also like to have all the libraries open and the parks mowed and the potholes filled? You do it as quickly as you can."

That's ridiculous. We could do recycling citywide tomorrow morning if we wanted to. LuAnn Anderson says it would cost $1 million that we don't have, but that's a fiction, too. If recycling were so expensive and burdensome, the private sector wouldn't do it at all. But Waste Management of Dallas, the giant garbage-collection company, just opened a huge recycling facility in West Dallas called Recycle America. (Sheila Overton, the city's recycling maven, gushed in our interview that the facility was open to the public and happily took all recyclable items, but when I dutifully showed up there with two paltry bags of garbage, I was told they only handle big, commercial accounts right now--aCR>nd then, only cardboard and newspapers. They laughed at me, then gave me a tour anyway.)

Waste Management sends salespeople out all over America looking to buy people's trash so they can sell it for a profit. On my tour of Recycle America, shift leader Jack Moore (yes, another Jack Moore) proudly showed off a large bale of crushed aluminum cans that he said would fetch $1,500. A ton of white computer paper, he said--showing me a stack of bales courtesy of Southwest Airlines--brought in $360. And cardboard was selling for $30 to $40 a ton.

"This stuff is great, man," Moore said, fingering a sheet of used computer paper that was sticking out of a bale. "If we can just get this, it's great. We'll buy it, man. We'll buy it."

So why doesn't the city collect it and sell it? Why not take Sheila Overton's apples away from her and send her out with a real mission--the underwriting of the city's recycling expansion? Moore, of course, knows why.

"If the city of Dallas went out and did this, they would lose money because of the landfill," Moore said. "Because we pay the city to dump there. It's a politics thing."

It's an economics thing. But the city of Dallas doesn't know how to make it work. The council members I talked to last week all pointed out that recyling is awfully expensive--Halstead and Stimson stressed that there are no local companies that recycle on the premises--all recyclable items have to be shipped far away to be processed, and that's too expensive to consider doing.

Rubbish again. Here we have yet another example of the lazy, uninformed city staff shoveling out more misinformation to gullible public officials.

Waste Management officials can tell you off the tops of their heads the names of local companies that process, right here in the Dallas area, the recycled materials Waste Management sells them--specifically Rock-Tenn, which turns old newspapers into paperboard, the stuff cereal boxes are made of (they're the city newspaper-recycling contractor, for heaven's CR>sake, and have operated their own paper mill near the Dallas Zoo for 102 years), and Corrugated Services Inc. of Forney, which turns cardboard boxes into heavy-grade paper.

"We also ship a lot of materials out of state," says Jack Moore. "But we wouldn't do it if we weren't making a profit. In fact, the demand for cardboard is so great in Mexico that they pay for the shipping, which we do by train."

There are local companies that recycle engine oil, mattresses, and junk cars (into engine oil, mattresses and steel), and the country's largest glass recycler, Strategic Materials, has a plant nearby in Midlothian, which buys and crushes glass, which it then sells to--among others--Owens/Corning Fiberglas in Waxahachie, which turns it into insulation.

If the city of Dallas would pick up glass bottles curbside, Strategic Materials would do the rest--supply boxcars for the city to dump the bottles in, pick up the bottles on a regular basis, and pay the city $30 a ton, less shipping.

"There's a solution to everything," says Strategic vice-president Curtis Bucey. "You just have to decide you want to solve the problem. We'd be happy to help Dallas solve the problem--but so far, we haven't had much luck there. Compared to other cities, Dallas is way down the scale in terms of what they recycle."

Before Dallas city staff gives away any more money--instead of collecting it--I suggest someone pick up a phone and call a woman named Kate Cooper. Cooper is the chief of the recycling section of the Department of Natural Resources for the entire state of Wisconsin. Last Wednesday, she was sitting in her office, working late on Thanksgiving eve.

Cooper told me that in 1990 the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law banning, by the year 1995, the disposal of the following items in the state's landfills: household appliances, car batteries, motor oil, leaves, grass clippings and small brush, aluminum and tin cans, bottles, newspapers, magazines, paper goods, and Nos. 1 and 2 plastic.

As a result oCR>f the law, every single city, town, village, and county in the state now has a state-certified recycling program--which, for 60 percent of the state, means full-service curbside service. The state provides grant money to the municipalities that need it--this past year, $30 million was parceled out statewide. And where does the money come from? A statewide tax on business income that will cease--along with the grants--in the year 1999. (Another $8 million in grants went to businesses to encourage them to develop products made out of recycled materials.)

And how burdensome was all this to all those cities and towns that were forced to create recycling programs? Cooper says that the city of Madison is making money--it no longer relies on any state subsidy; it's got money to spare after expenses.

Wisconsin is a long way from Texas--in a lot more ways than miles. Kate Cooper picked up her telephone last Wednesday, the start of a long holiday weekend, thinking it was her husband on the phone--not a newspaper reporter from a distant state whom she didn't have to talk to or deal with ever again. Still, she stayed on the phone for almost an hour, excitedly talking about her state's efforts, spouting facts and figures off the top of her head.

"I wish you well down there in Texas," she said as she hung up. She then spent an additional 20 minutes putting together a packet of materials for me and faxing it. And what if I had a question about that material? "If you need to get in touch with me over Thanksgiving, I'll give you my home number."

And, incredibly, she did--proving, without a doubt, that she was a million miles away from the apple-peelers at Dallas City Hall.

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