Many rural communities in the United States operate transfer station systems to provide convenient recycling and solid waste disposal locations for their residents. Not unlike their counterparts in urban and suburban communities, Island County, Wash., decision-makers wanted to know whether their transfer station system was operating efficiently and cost-effectively.
The county, which encompasses two large islands about 60 miles north of Seattle, has been growing rapidly in recent years and closed its sole remaining landfill in the early 1990s because of environmental concerns. After studying several options, including waste-to-energy (WTE) and composting, the county decided to send its solid waste by truck and rail to a remote regional landfill in eastern Washington. As a result, managing the cost of transfer station operations and reducing the waste stream through recycling are vitally important to the economics of Island County’s solid waste program. In 2008, the county contracted with SCS Engineers to evaluate the operations of its transfer station program and to make recommendations to improve efficiency.
The county operates an integrated solid waste management system consisting of two transfer stations (Coupeville and Camano), and three drop-box stations (Bayview, Freeland, and Oak Harbor), where residents can dispose of solid wastes, recyclables and household hazardous wastes . All of these facilities have experienced high volume in recent years due to the county’s population growth, although the rate of growth has declined during the economic downturn. The total population served by the county’s system is about 80,000.
The changes eventually implemented by the county — expanded tipping bays, increased minimum tipping fees and a fee schedule designed to encourage recycling and control disposal costs — provide examples of how communities everywhere can improve the operations of their transfer station systems.
Island County consists of two large islands, Whidbey and Camano. Access to both Whidbey and Camano islands impacts the patterns of solid waste management in the county. Although both are accessible by road/bridge, there is no direct transportation access between the two islands, and solid waste is transported to railheads through adjacent counties. There is currently no direct barge or rail transportation to either island.
Importantly, Whidbey and Camano Islands have been designated as sole source aquifers by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that they contribute at least 50 percent of the drinking water for the surrounding area. This designation means that no new or expanded solid waste landfills can be sited in Island County due to the potential impacts on groundwater from a new facility.
The consultant’s review of the Solid Waste Department’s facilities indicated that they were well managed and that equipment was maintained in accordance with established waste industry practices. Staffing levels for most functions appeared optimal with respect to other rural solid waste agencies. Data collected during SCS’s benchmarking survey of other similarly sized transfer station systems suggested that the Coupeville Transfer Station’s operating costs (not counting the cost of transportation and disposal) compared favorably with well-run, publicly operated facilities.
However, there was room for improvement. Because of increasing waste deliveries, moving waste from the tipping floor into the compactor and then into the transfer trailers was a daily challenge for staff. The consultant therefore proposed several major recommendations.
One recommendation was to expand the tipping floor at the Coupeville Transfer Station by adding bays, which would enable the county to see immediate economic benefits and would provide needed additional operating space, reduce congestion, increase storage capacity in the event of a service interruption, and permit additional room for staff to remove potential recyclables from the incoming waste stream.
In the end, the county opted to construct a new bay that is about twice the size of the existing single bay, with a higher roof, removable fencing for an emergency open-top trailer loading slot, steel-clad push walls, an upgraded floor drainage system and angled push walls into the older transfer station. The added space also will provide additional storage for dry material to more effectively construct bales and maximize weight distribution in transfer trailers. The expansion will be completed in early 2011.
Another recommendation was for Island County to expand its program of offering reduced tipping fees for customers delivering segregated loads of recyclable materials such as wood wastes. The county’s contractor for yard and wood waste recycling continuously experiments with innovative methods to improve separation and screening of yard waste materials, and identifies markets for boiler fuels. Again, every additional ton recycled from the incoming waste stream results in disposal costs savings. The county has worked with its recycling contractors to develop markets for these segregated materials and has further adjusted its tipping fees to attract these supplies.
Upgrading Camano Transfer Station
A review of operations at the existing Camano Transfer Station strongly suggested that further improvements were necessary in the near future to increase unloading and waste storage capacities. Site conditions had required off-site queuing of trucks and customers. Off-site queuing was significantly reduced with the installation of a second scale in 2006 together with an enlarged entrance and revised interior circulation. However, circulation patterns needed further adjustment to assure adequate roadway safety for customers and waste transporters.
To achieve this objective, a further engineering upgrade, designed by Lacey, Wash.-based Skillings Connolly Inc., was completed in 2008. An interior road that ends in a cul-de-sac containing a stand-alone single-stream containerized recycling system was installed, which eliminated conflicting traffic movements within the facility and off-site queuing onto adjacent roadways. New below-grade recycling bins eliminated customers having to climb stairs to place recyclables in above-grade containers.
Adjustment of the Minimum Service Fee
Island County prepares solid waste rate studies every three years. After the completion of the most recent study in 2009, the county increased the minimum fee to $11 for a single can of materials (not exceeding 40 pounds) delivered to one of its transfer stations. This minimum or base fee covers recycling, household hazardous waste and other associated program costs, in addition to actual waste disposal.
A review of available solid waste disposal fees from neighboring communities suggested that $11 was still comparable to the fee charged by other communities in western Washington. More importantly, it was believed that a lower minimum fee would minimize the incentive to subscribe to curbside collection and recycling services if they are available.
Thus, with fewer customers in the unincorporated areas, a franchised hauler would find it difficult to provide cost-effective service because many potential customers would instead take advantage of the below-market rates at the transfer station. Ultimately, the sheer number of self-haulers would severely tax the county’s transfer station staffing and resources. Therefore, Island County will continue efforts to evaluate the minimum service fees with respect to its impact on collection system subscriptions, transfer station staffing and operational costs.
Encouraging Additional Recycling
The county currently offers reduced tipping fees at its transfer stations for segregated yard and garden waste, and, on Whidbey Island, for segregated wood waste (clean painted or unpainted lumber, plywood, particle board, etc.). It appears that these rates have significantly increased the segregated tonnages of these materials brought to the two transfer stations, which are then recycled by the county’s contractor. Ultimately, these materials do not make it into the waste stream that must be transported to the regional landfill in eastern Washington by Allied/Rabanco.
SCS recommended that the county explore the development of similar fee structures for other recyclable commodities. By increasing its recycling rate, the county could see significant savings in its overall transport and disposal costs. A successful voluntary curbside recycling program offered by the franchised hauler is currently available on Camano Island. Similar opportunities are still being sought for unincorporated Whidbey Island.
In enterprise accounting, the term “fund balance” is often misunderstood. In essence, it is an accounting construct that is the difference between the governmental fund’s current assets — cash, inventories, investments and other unrestricted assets to finance current operations — and its current operating expenditures. A positive fund balance is an indication of the resources that are available to finance ongoing operations. For most local governments, any fund balance that is not appropriated for specific expenditures usually serves as a general operating reserve for the governmental entity. Determining an adequate level of unrestricted fund balance is one of the more difficult questions for policymakers and decision-makers for public utilities.
There is a paucity of research and literature about the most appropriate level of reserve funds for local governments providing solid waste management services. A recent survey conducted by SCS suggests that governments that have established a reserve policy have adopted a standard of setting aside three months of operating costs for unforeseen needs that arise during the fiscal year, including:
• Expenses associated with unforeseen weather
• Natural disasters
• Unexpected liability created by state or federal law
• New public safety requirements
• Requirements that have been identified after the budget process has occurred
• Cover revenue shortfalls due to reduced waste flow (e.g., downturn in the economy resulting in less waste flow)
• Startup expenditures for new programs undertaken at mid-year
At the time of the study, Island County maintained a $1.3 million restricted reserve for use in emergency post-closure environmental issues at closed landfill facilities. In addition, the county had about $2.5 million in operating reserves for waste equipment repair, facility maintenance and new capital facilities. Based on the county’s current solid/household hazardous waste and recycling budget of roughly $6 million per year, SCS recommended that the county should consider maintaining at least $1.5 million for operating reserves apart from funding these future capital facilities.
On a related financial note, the county aims to minimize its transfer station equipment costs by purchasing good, pre-owned units through state surplus or reputable industrial dealers.
It is a constant balancing act for rural areas without direct access to rail or other major transportation infrastructure to maintain tipping fees at reasonable levels. At the same time, rural communities are required to adhere to ever-changing and more stringent environmental and other operational regulations.
Island County, probably like many other rural areas, has found that the best innovation for improvement of processing and system operation often comes from the ground up; in other words, encouragement and adoption of recommendations made by crews and attendants who deal with the waste and recycling streams on a daily basis.
At the management level, it is important to keep abreast of the latest technologies, while being cautious in adopting major changes without a high chance of success. “Don’t lead with your chin” is appropriate advice for many cases of rural system operations.
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