Proposed changes to Tulsa trash system successful in San Antonio
BY BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2011
9/16/11 at 10:24 AM
As Tulsans brace for changes to their residential trash service, San Antonians have embraced their switch to a new system and set lofty goals to reduce their waste.
"When people see what we are doing here in San Antonio, there's no questioning this is something we are serious about," said David McCary, the city's solid waste management department director.
The service San Antonio finished transitioning to in 2010 is exactly what is being eyed for Tulsa - each household is given two rolling carts, with one for recycling and one for trash.
Recycling is not mandatory, but trash collection was reduced from twice-a-week to once-a-week.
Under this system, San Antonio has cut the 500,000 tons of waste it generates annually by 25 percent. Before the switch, it only recycled 5 percent.
That city's elected leaders have a goal of reaching 60 percent by 2020 through a program called, "Creating a Pathway to Zero Waste."
San Antonio is governed under a City Council-city manager form of government, McCary said.
The councilors are a diverse set of people: young and old and men and women of different races, but they all recognized the need to develop a trash program with an eye on the future, he said.
"What I believe they saw was a need to really touch our next generation," McCary said. "It's important to look beyond our time."
Resistant to change
While Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett has supported the city's trash board in developing a new system, the majority of the City Council has been steadfastly against a change.
Councilors - facing re-election this fall - have been under pressure from residents who want trash service to remain as it is now.
The council has gone so far as to unsuccessfully try to strip the trash board - formally called the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy - of its contracting authority.
But the board - made up of volunteer resident appointees and the mayor's designee, City Manager Jim Twombly - has remained resolved in switching Tulsa to a uniform level of service citywide, one in which the rates are stable and not subsidized by the city and which takes a greener approach.
Only 1 percent of the city's nearly 130,000 tons of waste generated last fiscal year was recycled.
As the system is now, a small section of the city known as the northwest quadrant has a once-a-week, cart-based system. The rest is twice-a-week service with residents using their own trash containers.
There's unlimited throwaway, and for those who do want to recycle, they have to pay an extra fee to be part of a program.
Trash board chairwoman Cheryl Cohenour said it's unfortunate that there has been such resistance to changing to a more progressive system.
"Right now, we don't have leadership in the community thinking very far out in the future," she said.
Pick your motive
Bartlett said one doesn't have to be environmentally conscious to get behind the new trash service.
Other benefits of such a system include creating "green jobs" within the city through the processing of recyclable materials, as well as having the proceeds from the recyclables sold going to hold down customer rates, he said.
"There's benefits to the environment, to the economy and to people's pocketbooks," the mayor said.
Bartlett said a lot of misinformation is being spread by Tulsa Refuse Inc., the consortium of independent haulers that has conducted the city's trash service for the past 30 years.
The hauling is now out for bidding for the next contract to begin in July 2012 - and TRI has publicly expressed worry about being able to compete against mega-waste companies that have more resources.
"We want this to result in the best system for Tulsa and not one particular contractor," Bartlett said.
San Antonio was set to launch its new system in 2006, going from twice-a-week collection with recycling bins, similar to what most of Tulsa has now.
But city officials there were concerned that not enough education had been done. They delayed it by a year and hired McCary, who has gained a nationwide reputation by working in Houston; Tampa, Fla.; and Durham, N.C.; for coordinating trash service transitions.
San Antonio leaders conducted additional public meetings and issued printed materials to get residents behind the program.
Still, there were some "who thought it was going to be the worst thing to ever happen to them," McCary said.
San Antonio did the transition over 3 1/2 years, tackling one section of the city at a time and also showing how recycling really begins in the kitchen. The city issued recycling bins to go inside each home to get people used to sorting materials.
"Eighty percent of what you throw away you can recycle," McCary said. "It's just a matter of changing habits."
While there was a small spike in complaints during the transition, the system now has a 99 percent customer satisfaction rate, he said.
Tulsans have fretted about the disabled and elderly being able to maneuver the carts, where to store them and overflowing trash and odors if there is only once-a-week service.
But the city's Solid Waste Services Manager Eric Lee said these concerns have been successfully dealt with in many other cities that have made the switch.
Tulsa is actually behind the curve in its trash program, Cohenour said. Of the 50 largest cities in the United States, 41 of them use carts and 39 have once-a-week collection, according to a survey.
Tulsa is ranked 45th. San Antonio is seventh.
In the Tulsa area, the vast majority of the suburbs also have once-a-week, cart-based systems, with the exception of Broken Arrow.
Education is key
Regardless of whether councilors are on board, Tulsa will be switching to a cart-based system that includes recycling next summer.
Still to be determined are the rates and the frequency of collection, which will be based on the costs submitted by bidders.
Residents will have their choice between three sizes of trash carts. The more they recycle, the smaller the trash cart that can be used and the cheaper the rate.
People who have any overflow trash will be able to buy special bags at stores so they can set it out by the curb. The plan is for each household to be issued 10 bags at the start of the program.
While Tulsa has not set a recycling percentage goal, like San Antonio, it is expected that the city's 1 current percent will see a 13 percent boost by simply removing green waste, such as leaves and lawn clippings, from the stream.
Unlike San Antonio's service, which is conducted by city crews, Tulsa is going completely private as of July 1, so the transition is going to be rapid.
This is where education is critical, Cohenour said. The board plans to spend $1.2 million from its reserve on an educational campaign in the first year.
Also, $350,000 in each of the next two years will be factored into the rates for ongoing education efforts.
"It's human to say 'If something's not broken, don't fix it,' " she said. "But we are trying as a board to look out into the future as far as we can and do the right thing by Tulsa. Sometimes that means change but change for the better."
Tulsa's trash board is bidding new hauling and other service contracts to begin July 1, 2012.
The city will move to a cart-based system in which each household will be issued two wheeled carts: one for trash and one for recyclables. Recycling is included in the service but not mandatory.
There will be three sizes of trash carts with cheaper rates for the smaller ones that are used.
Still to be determined are the rates and the frequency of collection, which will depend on the costs submitted by bidders.
Bids are due Sept. 21 and will be unsealed the next day.
A contract will be awarded in mid-November.
San Antonio's standard trash rate has gone from $15.99 per month before the switch to $18.74. It has not increased in two years.
"It does involve an initial increase because of the costs involved, but over time, the rates are held down," David McCary said. "Had we not made any changes, our rate would now be over $20."
Because of the $3 million that city made in selling recyclables last fiscal year, it shaved 74 cents off the rate.
San Antonio's recyclable proceeds are expected to reach $5 million this year, having an even bigger impact, McCary said.
The section of Tulsa that has twice-a-week service has a $13.44-per-month rate, while the once-a-week section has a $10.52 rate. Residents who want to take part in the curbside recycling program pay an extra fee of $2 per month. All of these rates are subsidized by the board's reserve fund by $1 or more per household per month.
And Tulsa's rates are an estimated $3 less than market level because the hauling contract has been in place so long.
Original Print Headline: Changes to trash system successful in San Antonio
Brian Barber 918-581-8322