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Hefty garbage hike likely in Island County

A recent Island County Public Works survey of Whidbey Island residents garnered mixed reactions to a proposed curbside recycling program.

Faced with the likelihood of a monthly $4 increase just to continue the little-used existing curbside service, customers may begin to warm to the idea of a new recycling pickup system that would add another $1.50 to the rate jump increase to finance an entirely new system.

Waste Connections, the county’s franchised hauler, has already predicted an increase of $4, although it will have to first justify the hike to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Committee. The company claims to be losing money on the current recycling system.

Public Works Director Bill Oakes discussed the results of an informal survey that was mailed to Island Disposal’s 9,500 customers at Wednesday’s staff session with the county commissioners. Approximately 2,600 surveys were returned.

“The total percentage of public response was actually pretty good,” Oakes said.

The admittedly unscientific survey was designed to gauge the public’s interest in a flat fee curbside recycling program. Some people criticized the poll because it omitted the projected fee increase. However, at the time the poll was distributed, the proposed increase was thought to be proprietary and the size of the proposed increase was not known. If anything, the response would have likely revealed greater support for the program if customers had known of the comparatively nominal net $1.50 increase, said Dave Bonvouloir, Island County solid waste manager.

“Most of the people who responded to the survey were not aware that the service provider is going for an additional $4 to continue the existing system,” he said. “We think the results would have been quite different had we been able to include that information.”

Waste Connections is a regulated monopoly, having purchased Island Disposal two years ago. But to cover the costs of deploying recycling carts, pickup crew and equipment, the company determined that a net additional fee of approximately $1.50 must be imposed. The blanket fee would ensure an adequate, fixed amount of revenue coming in to support the program.

The burning survey question of whether residents would support a curbside recycling program for a fee showed less than conclusive numbers: 49 percent said yes, 43 percent were against it, and the remainder were on the fence.

The existing system that Waste Connections uses to recycle entails literally dumping the contents of trash bags from the residential route trucks onto conveyor belts and then removing recyclables. The process is less than 5 percent efficient, Oakes said. The number is based on the comparison of recyclables separated to the entire waste stream.

The survey’s second question asked if the customer uses the existing “Clear Bag” recycle system. A substantial 80 percent answered “no.”

“There are very few people using it,” Oakes said of the system in which customers place recyclables in separate, clear bags to help distinguish the contents and prevent contamination.

“Most people don’t even know about it,” said Commissioner Mac McDowell.

The system was initiated several years ago in an attempt to boost the efficiency of the existing system. Bonvouloir said the concept did not catch on when it was introduced, typical of a voluntary system that the county was unable to continuously advertise.

Waste Connections expects the proposed system to remove up to 30 percent of the recyclables compared to the low removal percentage with the current system.

Affirmative, negative and undecided responses divided the self-haulers who were asked if they would switch to trash collection services with the implementation of the new system.

Using a 96-gallon recycling collection cart as an example, the survey went on to ask if the service would decrease the number of cans the residents currently set out. About 35 percent said the waste stream would be downsized while 55 percent said it would have no effect. Ten percent were undecided.

Although the proposed system focused on a 96-gallon container, Bonvouloir said information was disseminated after the poll went out making it clear that 65-gallon or even smaller containers could be made available.

For a family that pays for the removal of two barrels of trash per week, and assuming the recycling system would cut the amount of refuse in half, the rate hike, including the $1.50, would be almost erased, depending on the amount of self-haul recycling, the solid waste manager said. Other levels of service could save varying amounts depending on the number of barrels set out.

The area vice president for Waste Connections will brief the commissioners on the proposal at the Nov. 7 staff session. The county’s role, Oakes said, will be to approve a recycling program, not rate increases.

McDowell was not convinced that a net $1.50 increase was a reasonable figure for the service. According to Bonvouloir, input from franchised haulers in the past indicated that a voluntary system would cost anywhere from $14 to $26 per month depending on participation rates and location.

Commissioner John Dean inquired whether the county could contract the curbside recycling system to allow only those customers interested in the service to incur the cost. Oakes said it was possible, however a fee would still have to be collected from somewhere.

An incredulous McDowell also questioned the proposed $4 increase.

“They’re going to the WTC and saying for us to remain at a 5 percent recovery rate we want $4 more?” he asked.

Bonvouloir said the Waste Connections representative should be able to explain the breakdown and assuage the commissioners’ concerns.

“It’s a very valid question when they’re here to have them explain the make-up of that $4,” he said.

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