Nothing could be finer than collecting trash in Carolina ... or at least, that's the opinion of the municipal solid waste departments in Charlotte, N.C., and surrounding Mecklenburg County, hosts of this year's Wastecon.
Municipal garbage collection and processing certainly is not taken for granted in this region, which routinely is hailed as being a trailblazer in managed competition. But beyond this national recognition, solid waste collection and disposal in Mecklenburg County and in Charlotte, its largest city, is like a fine-tuned machine: efficient and reliable.
Although the city and county have faced different challenges in competing against the private sector for solid waste accounts, both have progressed to a working model that, so far, has delivered what they promised.
Mecklenburg's Strategy Forty-six employees make Mecklenburg County's solid waste operations hum. Each day, 22 haulers drop off waste at one landfill and two transfer stations that serve the county. These haulers submit monthly activity reports to the county, which licenses them. While both the municipalities and private haulers provide curbside solid waste, yardwaste and recycling pick-up in cities and towns, residents in unincorporated areas often contract with private haulers.
To help boost diversion, Mecklenburg County provides four unstaffed recycling drop-off centers, which accept materials such as office paper, cardboard, magazines, newspapers, phone books, aluminum/ steel/tin cans and plastic/glass bottles. In addition, three staffed "convenience centers" accept regular recyclables as well as goods that are banned from landfills, such as propane tanks and appliances.
Other elements of the county's solid waste system include:
* a staffed metal recovery facility that accepts appliances;
* a "swap shop" located at the North Mecklenburg Recycling Center, where residents can leave, exchange or pick-up for free, reusable items in good condition;
* household hazardous waste disposal sites at two recycling centers, which accept materials such as paint, thinners, flammable oils, gasoline, kerosene, pesticides, cleaning agents and household batteries; and
* two composting facilities - Compost Central, located on a 30-acre site and opened in 1991, and the North Mecklenburg yardwaste facility, which was opened in 1989. Both facilities accept yardwaste generated from commercial/industrial and residential properties. The tipping fee is $14 per ton or $6 per pick-up truck load. "We set our fees to break even," says Cary Saul, Mecklenburg County's assistant director with the Department of Engineering and Building Standards.
North Carolina prohibits landfilling yardwaste; fortunately, Mecklenburg County has no trouble selling all of the compost it generates, Saul says. For compost end-use, the county has contracted with Charlotte-based New Solutions, a firm that packages and sells compost and potting soil regionally. To increase composting education, the county, in conjunction with the city of Charlotte, also holds neighborhood fairs to teach homeowners how to compost their own yardwaste.
Lower tip fees may be on Mecklenburg's horizon, as the county prepares to open the long-planned Foxhole Landfill next summer. Reaching this point has not been easy, Saul says. Along the way, the county has had to shut down a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant on which it still owed millions of dollars and practically had to jump through hoops to get the landfill permitted.
The county closed the WTE plant because its ash emissions contained an unacceptably high lead content and the pollution control equipment necessary to bring the plant into compliance would have cost at least another $5 million. "It didn't make sense to pay that much money to handle 10 percent of our waste," Saul explains.
Making this decision on the WTE plant was fairly easy; resolving the problems encountered in siting the new landfill has taken the county much longer - about 15 years. "We never stopped the process," Saul explains. "We kept going, but there were obstacles in the way."
Fourteen years ago, the county was operating four landfills, three of which were scheduled to close in 1986; the remaining one was slated for closure in 1988. In the late '80s, after conducting numerous studies, securing zoning approvals and winning a series of court rulings, the county was prepared to go ahead with its new landfill construction plans.
Enter the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its new Subtitle D regulations, which forced the county to scrap its design plan and start over - a process that entailed a new round of securing permits and approvals, performing technical work, and garnering political support.
The county forged ahead during the early '90s, tiptoeing through the same bureaucratic and regulatory minefield that it had in the '80s. In 1995, Mecklenburg County reached an agreement with Union County, N.C., and Lancaster County, S.C., to use the new regional landfill jointly once it was completed.
In July 1998, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued the permit to construct the landfill in the county's southern section, along the border with Union and Lancaster counties. The new landfill will have a 6 million ton (approximately 15-year) capacity and will handle household, commercial and industrial solid waste.
In the meantime, waste from Mecklenburg County and its communities is being trucked to two transfer stations - one owned by Container Corp. of North Carolina, a subsidiary of Scottsdale-Ariz.-based Allied Waste, and the other, located in adjacent Gaston County, owned by Houston-based Waste Management Inc. - and to a landfill in adjacent Cabarras County, which is owned and operated by Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI).
The county pays BFI a user fee and, in turn, sets the tipping fee for all governmental entities using the landfill.
The county now charges $32.83 per ton for commercial waste and $28 per ton for residential waste. The new landfill's tip fee has not been set, but Saul expects it to be approximately $24 per ton. The fee will be adjusted for inflation from a base rate of $21 per ton.
Saul says he hopes the county's new landfill will trigger a tip fee war. "We think the rates are too high, and we don't want all of the waste at our landfill," he says. "If [the tip fee competition] keeps rates down for customers, it's good for the community."
The Mecklenburg Waste Management Advisory Board, which consists of 20 members from local governments and from technical, legal, scientific, financial and academic fields, advises the county commissioners. The board, which meets monthly, assists in developing a long-range waste management plan that is acceptable to the county and its cities.
This 10-year Solid Waste Management Plan launches an aggressive, voluntary waste reduction program for the commercial sector and calls for government agencies and schools to lead the way.
As part of the plan, the county has implemented the internal recycling program called "PaperChase" and has formed a waste reduction task force.
"Trash Flash" newsletter and a website keeps its residents up-to-date. Designed and maintained by county employees, the website was created two years ago and offers:
* a rundown on the county's collection policies;
* solid waste statistics;
* the hours, prices and locations of individual facilities; and
* information on topics such as the new landfill and the county's solid waste management plan.
The website can be found at www. co.mecklenburg.nc.us/coeng/recycle/mcswm.htm
Mecklenburg and its municipalities have benefited from keeping the lines of communications open and from meeting quarterly, Saul says. "We keep [the municipalities] informed, and they keep us informed," he says. "We try to do our planning jointly."
Competing in Charlotte Even before managed competition emerged in Charlotte, the city's Solid Waste Services Department (SWSD) had a good reputation for providing excellent refuse collection. Its curbside recycling program, implemented in 1990, is considered one of the best in the country, according to consultant Jeremy O'Brien of Omaha, Neb.-based HDR Engineering's Charlotte office.
Five years ago, Charlotte streamlined its entire city government by reorganizing all 26 departments into nine "key businesses" and four "support businesses." Granted autonomy but put on notice that they would be held accountable, the key businesses were required to develop operational and budgetary plans, under the assurance that they would be backed up by the support businesses.
Since the reorganization, Charlotte has made broad use of managed competition, taking a systematic, business-like approach to its service.
In addition to implementing managed competition at SWSD, Charlotte has put the concept to work in other areas, such as computer operations, street/building maintenance, signage/traffic signals and at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department, which handles water and wastewater operations. This "broad brush" approach enables city departments to learn from one another about how best to approach the request for proposal (RFP) process and how to make business decisions.
The conversion to managed competition has been incremental at SWSD. In 1995, the department put residential collection services in its south quadrant (34,074 single-family units) up for bid, but did not submit its own bid. The winning bidder was BFI, which was granted a five-year contract. Wayman Pearson, SWSD's key business executive, says SWSD sat out that round in part because it needed more time to make itself competitive enough to bid against the private sector.
But when Round Two came in 1997, SWSD was ready. The department beat out four private competitors, winning a five-year contract to provide collection to 31,871 residential units in the city's western quadrant. SWSD's bid, $4.87 per household per month, equated to $1.3 million less per year than the lowest private bid.
This contract, which began in January, calls for once-per-week curbside refuse, yard waste and recycling collection services on the same day. The city picks up bulky waste on an as-needed basis.
The SWSD submitted its bid through a separate operating and accounting division: SWS-Contract Collections - the same approach it will be using to bid for residential collection service in the east and north quadrants. An RFP for the east quadrant is expected to go out no later than November 1998, and the bids are scheduled to be opened in February 1999. An RFP for the north quadrant is projected to go out in April 1999, Pearson says.
For the 105,718 single-family housing units from which it collects garbage and recyclables, Charlotte provides:
* weekly curbside automated collection using 95-gallon containers;
* weekly curbside recyclables collection using 16-gallon bins (items collected are newspapers, telephone books, magazines and co-mingled containers);
* weekly curbside yard waste collection; and
* bulky items and used tires collection, upon request.
SWSD employees work up to a 50-hour week and are paid for 40 hours at regular salary and 10 hours at premium pay. Garbage collection at apartment complexes (67,676 multi-family units) is privatized.
Cross-training employees so that they can perform all tasks related to the four types of collection services and empowering them to make on-the-spot decisions, improves Charlotte's efficiency. For example, if one recycling collection crew is running behind schedule, and a refuse crew is finished with its route early, the refuse crew helps the recycling crew get back on track.
The city's decision to move toward automated collection resulted in development of more detailed, thorough truck specifications. "We have done an analysis on what type of equipment it takes to do the work and have written equipment specifications with the goal of having high productivity," Pearson says.
Over several years, the city retrofitted trucks with automated equipment and also purchased high-compaction, automated collection vehicles. The department currently has about 40 fully automated trucks. Additionally, SWSD uses geographic information systems and an automated route system to optimize collection.
Employee cross-training and increased automation have helped SWSD trim its staff from 350 employees in 1990 to about 120 today. Many of the employees who left took jobs in other city departments or became employed in the private sector; the rest were lost through attrition, Pearson says.
This automation and downsizing has saved SWSD about $4 million per year and has reduced the department's loss risk factor dramatically, Pearson says.
An audit of SWSD's first quarter 1998 performance in the western quadrant, performed by the city's Internal Audit Division, revealed that the department finished "significantly under [projected] costs," Pearson says.
"We've already had the opportunity to pay gainsharing to our employees," he continues. The city is holding back about half of its gainsharing payments until the end of the year, but in the first quarter alone, employees received $892 apiece, he says.
Consequently, the employees' morale has improved. Initially resistant, fearful and skeptical, employees now have a strong belief in their jobs. "Probably the most amazing thing in terms of a paradigm shift is the employees' understanding of the cause-and-effect of their actions on the bottom line," Pearson says.
Total Waste Landfilled: 634,433 tons (247,520 residential tons; 386,913 commercial tons)
Total Residential Waste: 331,030 tons
Total Residential Recycling: 83,510 tons
Average Recyclables Revenue: $54.06/ton
Recyclables' Net Revenue: $501,112
Cost to Process Recyclables: $36/ton
Tip Fee at Browning-Ferris Landfill for Commercial Garbage (fiscal year 1996-1997): $26/ton; large hauler discount, $25.24
Total Residential Waste: 232,666 tons
Total Residential Recycling: 65,614 tons
Total Waste Landfilled: 167,051 tons