Mayor’s Message: the challenge of maintaining our recycling program

If you’re old enough, like me, then you have learned to automatically adopt certain habits, such as always wearing a seatbelt in the car, silencing your cell phone in the movie theater, and separating your garbage from your recycling.

But that recycling habit is becoming a lot less virtuous.

There has been a lot of news coverage about the precipitous drop in the recycled materials markets, but in case you missed it here’s the gist: for years, the stuff you put in those big blue bins was sold and shipped overseas, mainly to China. But last year China stopped taking plastics, mixed paper and other materials from the United States. The market for our empty orange juice bottles, newspapers and cat food containers (well, there’s a glimpse of what’s in my can) suddenly dried up.

It doesn’t take an economics degree to understand what happens when there’s no market for certain goods. Recycling programs in cities across the country are bleeding red ink. Some cities are limiting what items they’ll accept.

Our friends at the City of Tacoma are asking their customers for feedback on some drastic options that range from eliminating curbside recycling to maintaining full services and raising rates $4 a month.

At the moment, there are no changes to the recycling program in Fircrest. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an impact.

While the City of Tacoma operates its own garbage and recycling service, the City of Fircrest has a multi-year contract for those services with University Place-based Westside Disposal.

Westside Disposal used to offset some of its operational costs by earning an average of $26,421 a year in revenue from selling its recycled commodities. However, last year the company had to pay $32,307 to the recycling plant.

Earlier this year, the company asked the Fircrest City Council for permission to add a 2.57% surcharge to monthly bills for one year in order to recoup those losses. That would have added 81 cents to the most popular service (64-gallon bin).

It doesn’t sound like much, but Councilmembers wrestled with the principle of it because that’s why we have a contract — to protect you against fluctuations in rates.

For now, the City Council decided to decline the company’s request. This is a global problem that affects a company that has provided outstanding and efficient service to our residents for many years. Let me know what you think by emailing me at hgeorge@cityoffircrest.net.

This post stinks

OK, that headline was my bad pun involving garbage, since that’s what this is about. But here’s the news: Fircrest residents will see their monthly garbage rate frozen for a year, and in exchange a local company gets an extension to its contract.

Here’s what happened: Under its current contract with the city (which lasts two more years), Westside Disposal/UP Refuse could increase solid waste rates by 85 percent of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) on March 1. That would amount to a 3.49 percent increase.

But Westside Disposal made a compelling offer. If we would agree to extend their contract by 10 years, the University Place-based company would waive this year’s CPI adjustment and stick to 2011 rates for the next year. We discussed that during a Council meeting in January and advised the city manager that we would be open to an eight-year extension. To their credit, Westside Disposal agreed, and we unanimously approved the package of ordinances at the Feb. 14 meeting.

Westside Disposal also agreed to make permanent the free curbside collection of “bulky” waste such as appliances, carpet, furniture and yard equipment. Between March 2011 and January 2012, a pilot project resulted in 197 customers asking for the pickup of items weighing a combined 46,000 pounds. This service helps keep Fircrest clean and assists those who don’t have the means to use the free clean-up days at the Westside collection point. And did I mention that it’s free?

This is the second time the city has given Westside a contract extension in exchange for a one-year rate freeze. The previous time was in 2001. We discussed whether to let the contract run out in 2014 and go out for an RFP, but a comparison of solid waste rates throughout the county shows we’re getting tremendous service at the lowest price.

This is good for everyone. Fircrest residents get a break on garbage rates during the Great Recession. And a local company with the lowest rates in the county has the economic security of an extended contract.