Island County looks at curbside recycling

Greenbank resident Wendy Waitt dumps her recyclables at Island County’s facility in Coupeville. A curbside program is again being discussed for Island Disposal customers who live in rural county areas.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Greenbank resident Wendy Waitt dumps her recyclables at Island County’s facility in Coupeville. A curbside program is again being discussed for Island Disposal customers who live in rural county areas.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

A curbside recycling program almost identical to the one pitched more than four years ago is being considered for Island Disposal customers.

The Island County Commissioners agreed in an informal split decision this week to move forward with plans for a “combined subscription” service that could add as much as $11.60 a month to the bills of all Island Disposal customers who live in rural county areas.

First proposed in 2007, the program was derailed in light of two major shortcomings; it didn’t include glass and it required all Island Disposal customers to pay for the service, whether they elected to recycle or not.

Four years later, a plan almost identical to the original — the only substantial difference is the price tag — is again on the table and this time it appears to be getting some real traction.

During a Wednesday work session, two of the three-member board of commissioners made it clear they would cast their support for the program, saying they believed the public had waited long enough.

“I’ve had so many people say,  ‘When are we going to get around to this?’” Commissioner Angie Homola said.

“I think it’s about time we put our foot forward in Island County,” she said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson was also was in favor of the idea.

It’s the right thing to do for the environment and the public because the proposal appears to be the most affordable off all the known options, she said.

The program

Like the original plan, the program would be administered by Waste Connections, parent company of Island Disposal. The company is Whidbey Island’s current state-franchised hauler.

As proposed, single stream, curbside pickup would be provided every other week. That means subscribers would not need to sort their recyclables but could throw everything into a 96-gallon bin provided free of cost. Smaller sizes may also be available upon request.

The only exception is glass. It poses a variety of problems for recyclers, such as glass shards damaging expensive equipment at paper mills, so is not being included. Glass products would continue to be accepted at county recycling centers, but residents would have to take them there themselves.

The program would also apply to all of the trash hauler’s customers on Whidbey Island, estimated to number between 7,000 and 9,000. People would not have to utilize the service by using the provided bins, but all would be required to pay the extra fee so the program could be implemented on a company-wide scale.

Current non-customers who self-haul, however, could subscribe for recycling curbside service only.

The largest difference may be cost. Waste Connection estimated earlier this year that it may be up to 44 percent more expensive to implement than its original 2007 curbside program, which was proposed at $6.40 a month.

The increase is the result of a changing economy and, ironically, efforts that began in 2009 by the board to identify an alternative hauler that could not only implement a curbside program for less but also offer a service that would not be mandatory for Island Disposal customers.

Public Works officials sent out a request for proposals in 2009 for possible haulers but it returned zero responses — not even Waste Connections submitted a bid.

Plans for a curbside recycling service languished on the shelf until earlier this year when the county again sought proposals from qualified firms.

This time, Waste Connections did respond but it was the only company to do so. Along with its $11.60 plan, it also proposed a program that would be optional for its customers but it would cost $20.65.

Statistics, studies

Public Works Director Bill Oakes discussed both options with the board during Wednesday’s meeting. He recommended the cheaper of the two plans, saying it made the most sense financially for the majority of customers.

Those who don’t recycle at all now could see their bill cut in half as recyclables are believed to make up about 50 percent of garbage.

A family who currently pays a monthly rate of $23.94 for two-cans-a-week service might downsize to one-can-a-week for $16.54.

Combined with the $11.60 cost for a curbside program, the ending bill for many families would be almost negligible, Oakes said.

“For me, it would pretty much be a wash,” he said.

Oakes also noted that the new curbside fee is by no means set in stone. In fact, it will likely be less, he said. To establish a curbside program, the board would adopt a level of service ordinance that directs it’s franchised hauler – Waste Connections – to provide curbside service on Whidbey Island.

The company would be required to put together a formal proposal, which would then undergo a detailed review by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

“We expect with WUTC review and county overhead out of that number, it could be less,” Oakes said.

A combined subscription service would also be more effective in increasing the county’s recycling rate. Currently, Island County recycles about 32 percent of its waste stream, which is nowhere near the department’s goal of 50 percent recovery.

The state has a 49 percent recovery rate and the national rate is 34 percent.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson was not so convinced, saying the increase for people who pay quarterly would be too much. She said her preference would be for an optional plan that would allow Island Disposal customers to choose if they want to pay more to recycle.

Emerson also claimed studies have shown that the recycling process can be counter productive by creating a larger carbon footprint than what is produced by simply throwing things away.

“I don’t necessarily agree that this is the route to go to provide a cleaner earth for future generations,” Emerson said.

Dave Bonvouloir, solid waste manager for Island County, said a recent carbon footprint study for Whidbey Island demonstrated that “there was no question” a combined subscription curbside program would result in the biggest carbon emission reduction for the county.

He also said he had not seen any studies personally that compared emissions from the recycling process to transporting solid waste to landfills.

Price Johnson and Homola said the choice was clear.

“You can find studies that show just about any outcome that you want if you look hard enough, but I think overwhelmingly the evidence is that we need to be reducing our carbon footprint on this planet and that we as leaders need to be willing to take bold steps to get there,” Price Johnson said.

“It’s a step in the right direction and I support the combined subscription,” Homola said. “I think it’s time we get on board.”

Oakes said the next step is for the board to adopt a level of service ordinance, which will require Waste Connections to develop a formal proposal for review by the WUTC. The ordinance will require a public hearing. He said he hopes to schedule the meeting for sometime this month.


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