Recycling

Collection System Challenges

Written by John Frederick. Posted in Recycling & Collection

Program Performance

Resource Recycling magazine recently published the summary of a recycling analysis in a number of communities around the country. (These were cities across the country for which detailed data had been gathered.) We compared those numbers to our own here in Blair County. Local processor and hauler data shows that the household recycling rate in our program is 232 pounds per household, or 37% of our potentially recyclable material. (Austin, Texas recycles 592 pounds/household by comparison.) The best programs recovered nearly 70% of their recyclable materials. That means that somewhere between the store and the recycling center, the average IRC household is losing track of 634 pounds of recyclables every year.

The IRC program (Altoona, Logan Township, Hollidaysburg Borough and Tyrone Borough) performs poorly when compared to other programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, too.  Figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) show the program is in the bottom 15% of those serving more than 15,000 people.  This means 85% of mandated recycling communities perform better than the IRC communities. (This does not include yard waste.  The IRC’s performance on yard waste is actually among the top third among Pennsylvania programs.)

Compliance and Participation

Recycling Reports

As is noted in several other parts of the report, overall recycling numbers for the IRC as a whole are far below state averages.  The IRC is in the bottom 20% among mandated recycling municipalities.  The IRC municipal yard waste collection program and IRC-operated composting operation are the exception to this sub-par performance.  Beyond disappointing recycling numbers and high disposal rates, this impacts the funding that is available through the state’s Recycling Performance Grant.  See below for a detailed analysis of those impacts.

Curbside Observations

The last time (in the early 2000s) changes to the collection system were discussed, Gannett Fleming Consultants and the Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania conducted curbside collection research to better understand participation and compliance throughout the three individual subscription collection programs in the IRC.

That surveys found that more than half (53%) had placed recyclables in their trash and did not set out a recycling bin (57%).  Though it was impossible to count a precise number that did not have waste service (since waste is set out at different times) the consultant concluded that the households without any service was large enough to be of great concern.  The number of houses that never have a waste or recycling setout supports this conclusion.

A lack of regular waste and recycling service means that:

  • Little or no recycling is done.
  • Waste and recyclilng are more likely to be burned illegally.
  • Waste is illegally dumped.
  • Waste accumulates on private property.
    • In commercial dumpsters.
    • Along roads and streams.
  • Properties are more likely to begin the slide to blight and general squalor.

Monthly Costs

Average Cost in the IRC

The average monthly cost of private subscription waste and recycling service in the IRC municipalities was $23.46 the last time data was collected.  Anecdotal evidence would indicate a slight increase since these prices were surveyed in early 2015.  There is a misperception that competition among many haulers will keep prices down.  But any savings that might be realized by competition is more than cancelled out by the inefficiency of the collection system.  This is not a criticism of hauling firms that serve the community but a reality of the system that has morer than twenty companies crisscrossing the communities.

Low Volume Rates

Though haulers are required by ordinance to offer a reduced rate for households producing less trash and recycling more, these reduced rates are very limited and some haulers do not offer one at all.  Many communities with contracted or municipal collection offer these “Pay-as-You-Throw” volume-based rates or a reduced rate for those that make smaller amounts of trash.  This is especially attractive empty-nesters and families that enthusiastically reduce waste, recycle and compost.  Like your water or gas bill, your monthly bill more closely reflects how much service you use.

Other Programs

The IRC’s private subscription collection system has been the standard in most of Blair County for decades.  Therefore, long-term residents are unfamiliar with how other programs operate and what they cost.  To better understand this we offer this short list of programs throughout Pennsylvania that have contracted for recycling and waste collection services.

               

Regular Monthly Collection Cost

Low Volume Monthly Collection Cost

IRC Private Subscription Average+

$23.46

$18.00+

Tyrone Borough+

$14.29

 

Centre Region COG

$15.72

$12.60

Cranberry, Butler County

$16.82

$13.87

City of Lancaster

$17.50

$13.33

Abington, Montgomery County*

$20.17

$15.58

Notes:

+No Blair County communities include any charges for yard waste collection or composting operations.  Those Blair County municipalities’ rates would be slightly higher if those costs are included.

*Landfill costs are significantly higher in the southeast part of the state where Abington Township is located. This is the reason for the higher monthly cost compared to others on the list. Even with that higher disposal cost, their rate is $3.29/month less than the IRC’s.

Monopolies and Long-Term Costs

There is always a concern that the bidding process will reduce your choices for the future, driving prices skyward as the years pass.  This has proven not to be the case in the two programs nearest Blair County.  Both the Centre Region Council of Governments (the suburban communities surrounding State College) and Tyrone Borough have seen their bids trend downward the last several bid solicitations.  Tyrone’s dropped $.70 and the Centre Region went down $.07 from the previous bid several years prior.  The Centre Region’s first bid in 1992 came in at $16.74.  Adjusted for inflation, the cost has gone down $13.13, a 71% decrease!

Other Financial Implications

Costs Absorbed by the Municipalities and IRC

The IRC has been absorbing costs associated with special material collections, electronics recycling, yard waste collection and ultimate composting of those organics.  These costs are well over $100,000/year.  Beyond those operational costs, the IRC was forced to assume the full cost of not only the composting operation but the large capital replacement costs of the composting equipment.

Equipment Grant Funding Fades

Equipment replacement grants are now capped at $250,000 and we can only apply every other round.  A recent $9 million transfer from the Recycling Fund to the State’s General Fund has further delayed the next grant round (since the Recycling Fund doesn’t have enough money now).  With the grant delayed at least a year, the IRC will have to take $400,000 out of its cash reserve to pay for the new grinder that now needs replaced. This and other ongoing expenses would come close to wiping out the IRC’s savings.

The Performance Grant

The IRC has long depended upon the annual grant from the state that rewards programs for the bottles, cans, paper and cardboard they market.  The funding formula for this grant continues to decrease, meaning the amount the IRC receives keeps going down.  Add to this that the IRC communities’ recycling performance has been poor and the funding we receive is a shadow of what other better performing municipalities secure. 

So Hollidaysburg and the IRC have two problems:

  • The Performance Grant funding has been decreasing because the state formula has changed.
  • The IRC Performance Grant is far below what it could be if the IRC recycled at a higher rate.

To better understand the impacts of this second problem, a summary of Pennsylvania municipalities with contracted or municipal collection systems is shown below.  The potential grant funding for the IRC is shown in the far right column.

 

Contracted or Municipal Collection

Per Capita

IRC Grant at this

 

Trash

Recycling

Grant Income

Per Capita Rate

Abington Township

X

X

$7.30

$510,402

S. Whitehall Township

X

X

$6.84

$478,271

City of Bethlehem

No

X

$5.09

$355,917

Penn Township

X

X

$4.36

$304,558

City of Allentown

X

X

$4.20

$293,641

Cranberry Township

X

X

$3.59

$251,083

Centre Region COG

X

X

$2.72

$189,883

IRC COG

No

No

$1.36

$  95,000

This summary is provided by the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC), the Council of Governments that oversees recycling and composting for all four mandated recycling municipalities in Blair County.  All the data and information in this report can be documented by reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Resource Recycling Magazine, Skumatz Economic Research, Gannet Fleming Consultants and the municipal programs listed in the report.

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