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Going Green to Save Green

City's recycling program reduces costs, but critics call bins an eyesore

By Adam Sievering · January 5th, 2011 · News
It’s the week after New Year’s Eve and chances are good that even modest Cincinnatians have at least a few empty champagne bottles or beer cans to toss in their recycling bin — unless a new recycling “smart cart” has already replaced it.

As part of the multiphase recycling rewards program initiated by the city last September, every single-family home in Cincinnati eventually will receive a cart that holds up to five times the capacity of old recycling bins as an incentive for neighborhoods to become more eco-friendly and help the save the city an estimated $7 million in trash disposal fees every year.

Also eligible are all 1-4 multi-family structures in the city limits, mixed-use buildings and any residences or small businesses that have city of Cincinnati curbside trash service.

As explained by Larry Falkin, Director of Environmental Quality, the city spends roughly $12 million annually to dispose of trash. Based on Rumpke’s numbers, 60 percent of that material is recyclable, which means we’re wasting $7 billion each year by taking stuff to the landfill that isn’t garbage. Falkin notes that once recyclables are collected, sorted and ready to sell on the market, the average market value of the material is roughly $80 per ton.

“Every ton of material we move from trash to recycling saves us about $30 in landfill containment fees and makes us about $30 at a value we get for that material,” Falkin says. “So, every time we move it, we save $60. We have the potential to move 40,000 tons of trash into recycling, so that’s big potential savings. Everybody tells city government to do more with less, and this is a classic opportunity to do so.”

In addition to saving the city some green, the enhanced recycling program will create more jobs, reduce pollution, conserve natural resources and save landfill space, supporters say.

As a reward for the vital role that residents play in the program, points are earned for every pound of recyclable material that they deposit into the “smart carts.” As the carts are dumped into the trucks, an automatic scanner records the weight in each cart and the amount is digitally converted into account points, which are redeemable online for products and gift cards to various local and national vendors.

In conjunction with the city, the rewards program is made possible by a company called RecycleBank.

Founded in 2004, RecycleBank is currently partnered with municipalities in nearly 20 states. The company doesn't own any recycling equipment or trucks, but instead operates as a contractor that assists cities in diverting waste from landfills in order to save the cities considerable amounts of money. A portion of the savings is then directed towards RecycleBank to cover operating costs while the rewards program as a whole is governed by the city, making them responsible for hiring haulers and waste processors, as well as purchasing or leasing the carts.

“The carts were very expensive and we didn’t have the money to purchase them right off the bat,” Falkin says. “But instead of leasing them, we decided to buy the carts ourselves, sell bonds in order to finance the purchase and make annual payments on the bonds. The amount we save with the enhanced recycling program is enough to make the payments on the bonds, so that’s what we did.”

The carts come in three sizes — 96 gallons, 64 gallons and 35 gallons — compared to the old, standard 18-gallon green-colored bins. By default, the city will collect the old bins if they are left at the curb and leave either a 96-gallon cart or a 64-gallon cart, the size depending on whether the residence is more or less than 1,000 square feet according to municipal records.

The carts are set to be distributed in four phases, three of which have already taken place. Each phase includes about 25,000 households, divided up according to trash zones as opposed to neighborhoods.

“It’s not neighborhood to neighborhood,” Falkin explains. “We took five trash zones and sliced them up into little pieces of each neighborhood included in each phase. There’s no neighborhood that is completely in and there’s no neighborhood that’s completely out (right now). It’s a checkerboard all over the city, but by the end of January, they’ll all have them.”

With Phase Three already complete, carts have been distributed to about three quarters of all residents. But while some residents anxiously await the recycling cart of the future, others are already missing the smaller bins and want the “smart carts” to disappear.

Marion Huijs, a resident of Prospect Hill, complains that the carts are too large to store and corrupt the historic vibe of the neighborhood when people leave them out at the curb.

“The carts are big and most people are not able to tuck them away somewhere,” Huijs says. “The neighborhood and city became really ugly after these bins arrived. People leave them in front of their houses or apartments and they look like big ugly soldiers.”

Kim Klosterman, another resident of Prospect Hill, echoes Huijs in her stand against the carts.

“Our street is an historic area, many houses do not have the advantage of a garage to store the carts. They are large and unsightly. We strive to maintain guidelines that make our neighborhood unique. Somehow, giant green bins just don’t fit the aesthetic,” Klosterman says.

Also, Klosterman dislikes the new biweekly collection, formerly a weekly event.

In fact, leaving the carts in front of buildings likely violates city law. Under the municipal code, trash bins can only be displayed 24 hours before pickup. Critics say the large carts result in many people having to break the law.

Despite some complaints, Falkin reports that 97 percent of the households have been fine with the carts delivered to them, or at least have not called the support line for assistance or to complain. “The 3 percent can simply call us (513-591-6000) and we’ll make the switch,” he says. “We’d be happy to take those carts back because we want to deploy them to households that want them.”

The program will be fully operational by early February.



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