Garbage In, Garbage Out

Why Dallas' recycling program is a $17 million joke

That's why state lawmakers in the 1990s enacted legislation that set an ambitious suggested goal of recycling 40 percent of the waste stream by 1994. At the time, new federal regulations were putting the squeeze on smaller landfills that did not meet new stricter federal requirements. Fear about where all the garbage was going to end up was pervasive.

In Dallas, the city was ahead of the game, or at least it was ahead for Texas. In 1990, the city council authorized the first Dallas recycling program, a small voluntary effort. The benefits, according to a city council briefing, were "saving the existing landfill space and avoiding siting new facilities" and "avoiding landfill disposal of reusable materials."

The council heard that landfill space was at a premium and that their recycling efforts could help save that space.

Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Mark Graham
Joanne Hill stands at the Dry Gulch Recycling Center, where she has spent 15 years offering voluntary recycling services without spending taxpayer money.
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.
Mark Graham
Unlike most other materials picked up at the curb, aluminum is one of the commodities that actually has a consistently strong market, recycling experts say.

"In Texas, there are approximately 750 landfills," part of the text from the briefing says. "In the last six years, almost 200 have closed. In the North Texas region, approximately one-third are considering closing down by October 1993 due to new federal regulations...By recycling 28 percent of the city's waste over the next 50 years based on 1990 tonnage, the city can add 14 years of life to the McCommas Bluff Landfill."

By the mid-1990s, the city fully launched a recycling effort. City crews collected the materials and then paid a processor to accept it. The city's program was never considered a very good one because too few residents participated and much of what was showing up at the curb was not usable by a recycler, Puckett says. By the late 1990s, it seemed logical to try to farm out the job to a company dedicated to recycling, she says.

"We were providing a recycling service and not getting much tonnage or participation. We'd gotten, I think, a little sloppy about letting customers put out just whatever they wanted," Puckett says. "They'd use different type bags. They couldn't tell trash from recycling.

"We needed to create a better standardized service so that what we pick up is recyclable and not trash."

The city asked for bids from private haulers, and Community Waste Disposal came in as the low bidder. It was a local company and one praised by nearby cities, Puckett says. Council members talked of the benefits of turning the effort over to a private contractor.

"Whether or not we privatize or continue to do what we're doing, the costs are there," Lois Finkelman, a council member and recycling advocate said at the time. "If indeed we make the decision that recycling is important, and I think that anyone that has children in school or grandchildren in school is only too aware of the fact that recycling has become a major focus and a major concern."

Puckett helped forward the argument for a better recycling program by telling the council that the city's existing effort was not working well and that the amount of garbage being diverted from the landfill amounted to "a drop in the bucket."

Though most faithful recyclers would wince to hear it, Puckett's metaphor applies to most city recycling programs. There are two relatively common misconceptions about the recycling business. One is that recycling is free because the company that picks up the material makes money from sales of the used goods. Not true. Recycling is an expensive proposition. In San Antonio it costs about $2.7 million a year; in Philadelphia it's $10 million; and in Dallas it's about $2.5 million. It's so expensive in New York City that the money-starved government there is talking about killing the whole $56 million program.

The other misconception about recycling is that most of what is picked up at the curb is recycled. In fact, a good percentage of the material ends up in landfills because it's not clean or there just isn't a market for it, those who have studied the recycling programs say.

"You have to make sure that you're overall saving resources and that things are actually getting recycled," says Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based think tank critical of government-mandated programs like recycling. "For instance, glass. Glass is not easy to recycle because it easily breaks and gets mixed in with other things, gets contaminated and then it's not marketable; it can't be used. And then you also have to think about what you're saving. Glass is made from sand. We don't have a sand shortage."

The city's contract requires that Community Waste Disposal file a quarterly report that says who bought the glass, paper and plastic collected in Dallas. But the cryptic report doesn't say how much from Dallas is sold to processors, and one of the companies that purportedly purchased the items would not comment on how much it bought or paid. A similarly vague report says Community Waste Disposal only throws out between about 5 percent and 7 percent of its garbage.

One former Community Waste Disposal employee said the company would routinely dump plastics like grocery sacks that no one would ever buy. The employee also said when the newspaper market dropped, it wasn't unusual for the company to take loads of newspapers to the DFW Landfill in Lewisville. The company just didn't have space to store newspapers while it waited for the market to come back, says the former employee, who also did not want to be identified.

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