Atlanta budget cuts force less recycling

Cash-strapped city giving away recycled trash it could sell

Joe Basista has, unfortunately, landed in a mire.

Just months on the job as the new commissioner of Atlanta's Department of Public Works, he's got a lot of ideas about recycling. He wants to distribute bigger bins, and kick-start a long-delayed pilot program that would entice more customers to recycle. Ultimately, he wants every resident to have separate bins for yard trimmings, recycling materials and trash.

But the city's estimated $140 million budget shortfall – which has resulted in 122 positions cut from his department and the need to cut costs – has forced him to put his attention elsewhere.

In fact, the financial crisis could mean a scaling back of the city's recycling program. The city currently picks up recycled materials once a week; under Mayor Shirley Franklin's budget proposal, that would drop to once every two weeks.

The city is cutting back on recycling just as the materials collected are more in demand.

According to state figures, each person in Georgia generates an average 6.6 pounds of trash per day – double the national average. It costs $90 million annually to throw away 2.6 million tons of cans, bottles and newspapers that are collected and moved to Georgia landfills. Ironically, those items would have an estimated market value of $300 million if they were recycled.

In Atlanta, 150,000-175,000 tons of garbage are trucked every year to various landfills located within a 100-mile radius of the city. Basista says he doesn't have exact figures on how much it recycles. He estimates that 7,000 tons of materials were recycled last year, and that 25 percent of Atlanta households participate in recycling.

Others interviewed by CL are skeptical the rate is anywhere near that high.

The city's recycled materials are processed by Dreamsan, a College Park business that has held the contract since 2001. The company pays nothing for the recycled material and keeps all revenue.

Steve Thompson, program director of Curbside Value Partnership – a Virginia-based nonprofit that educates communities about the value of recyclable materials – says that deal essentially means Atlanta is throwing away cash.

In his 35 years in the industry, Thompson says he has never seen prices for aluminum, steel and paper so high. He says the city is wasting an economic opportunity by giving the materials away to Dreamsan rather than auctioning it off to recycling companies.

"If you think of it as trash, you treat it as trash," Thompson says. "If you think of it as a valuable feedstock, you think of it differently and behave differently toward it. They absolutely should not be giving that away."

Georgia is awash in companies that could use the resources. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, one-third of all plastic bottles recycled in North America end up in Dalton to be used to make carpets. Paper materials to feed a pulp mill in Dublin, Ga., are trucked in from Texas while more than 320,000 tons of newspapers in Georgia are tossed out every year.

Randy Hartmann, the DCA's director of environmental management, says there are recycling companies in the area that will pay for material. He says the state encourages cities to get money back from recycling programs. "It's not really waste they've got there; it's a resource," he says. "There are folks willing to pay for it. And I'm not sure Atlanta's there just yet."

Basista says the city plans to explore that option.

In the meantime, Atlanta could lose what little momentum it already has when it comes to recycling.

According to Thompson, when residential recycling collections are scaled back, people's recycling habits often are broken. And out of frustration, confusion or sheer hassle, participation rates drop.

"People's lives are so stressed, complex and time-constrained," Thompson says. "If you put one more thing in the hopper for them to keep up with, they just go, 'The hell with it. I've got bigger things in my life than your recycling program.'"

Look to New York City, for example. In 2002, that city scaled back its recycling efforts because of a financial crisis similar to Atlanta's. Participation rates dropped sharply before the city reinstated its services and the rates are only now beginning to slowly rise.

"You're making it less convenient and harder for people to remember," Thompson says. "You can overcome disrupting people's habits if you spend the money to educate them that you're only coming every other week. But you need to provide a sort of 'nag' service."

He points to Nashville – which boasts a successful program even though crews collect recycling just once a month. The city sends e-mails on the eve of pick-ups to "block captains" to remind them to put out their bins and send a signal to neighbors, Thompson says.

To help make the twice-a-month pick-up work in Atlanta, the city will launch a pilot program in July to issue 10,000 recycling containers that are the size of a green Herbie Curbie. The rest of the city's 100,000 residential customers will have the opportunity to get the new 95-gallon containers by the end of next year. They will cost $70 each. Residents also have the option of providing their own container.

City Councilwoman Clair Muller wants to encourage recycling by following Decatur's lead and adopting a "pay-as-you-throw" program. Under that, residents would have to purchase specific garbage bags for pick-up; in Decatur, 10 33-gallon bags cost $14.45.

Since Decatur began the program in 1998, it has reduced municipal solid waste by 42 percent.

Those who oppose the "pay-as-you-throw" program say it's difficult for those living on low incomes and encourages illegal dumping.

Muller also hopes to keep the weekly recycling program by eliminating the pick-up of yard waste until the fall. "There are studies that show if you pick up recycling less, then you disincentivize people from putting it out," Muller says. "In the future, the need to provide recycling options is going to become bigger and bigger."