Famous for its southern hospitality, hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics and numerous Peachtree streets, Atlanta also has become notorious for its rapid growth and booming economy. Approximately 3.5 million people make up the 27 counties known as the Atlanta metropolitan area. And although the city houses 450,000 residents, Atlanta swells to almost twice that on weekdays, when commuters from the sprawling suburbs descend on downtown.
With such growth, however, comes garbage - and lots of it. According to recent figures, residents of Atlanta and Georgia are throwing out more garbage - nearly 7.7 pounds per person per day - than they were in 1992, when they threw out 7.1 pounds per day. Nationwide, Americans generate about 411/42 pounds of trash per person per day, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Thus, Cedric Maddox, director of Atlanta Solid Waste Services, says he faces a formidable challenge. While he's responsible for collecting waste from the 450,000 residents who live within the city limits, he also must absorb the cost of picking up the trash generated by commuters as well as the thousands of tourists that visit the city each year. And looking at the state's booming economy, solid waste handling will not get easier.
In anticipation of WasteExpo 2000 in Atlanta, Waste Age had a conversation with Maddox about his department, including its operations, services, challenges and plans for the future.
Maddox was hired by the city of Atlanta as administrative services director in 1974, and became solid waste director in 1979. He remembers Atlanta being the first major city to institute semi-automated collection in 1974. Previously, residents left their garbage at their back doors, and collectors would haul it down to the curb and into the trucks.
"It was a drastic change from the hands-on, very personalized service," Maddox says, adding that the previous method was labor-intensive and injury-prone. Residents had trouble getting used to the new system. To encourage participation, the city gave residents free wheeled carts to take to the curb.
"When we gave the citizens more responsibility, we also had to give them a push," Maddox says.
This semi-automated push allowed the growing city's solid waste services to maximize efficiency. Prior to semi-automation, there were 1,100 employees in the department, and four people ran 100 routes each. Today, there are 33 routes across the city per day, and the entire solid waste services department has 480 employees. Fewer employees and more efficient operations means waste collection has become precise, with fewer injury and vandalism claims, Maddox says.
"When everything is running correctly, we can predict within 15 minutes when the truck is going to come by your house," he adds.
The Annual Haul Currently, the department collects 250,000 tons of solid waste annually from 87,000 single-family residents and 45,000 multi-family housing units. A private hauler collects from the other 30,000 multi-family units in the city.
According to Maddox, Atlanta residents pay about $300 for a single-family unit. The city gets no direct benefit from this revenue. Atlanta residents also pay for the handling of trash, such as street cleaning, created by the city's visitors and commuters.
"[Visitors] drink the water, use our facilities, drive on our streets," Maddox says. "They leave the material behind that they generate while they are here, and the 450,000 have to foot the bill for this."
To accommodate this extra trash, Maddox says the city also contracts with several private haulers, including Waste Management Inc., Houston, Allied Waste Industries/Browning-Ferris Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., and United Waste to collect commercial waste. Household waste goes to the Waste Management Inc.-owned Live Oaks Landfill located south of the city.
Household waste pretty much includes everything, Maddox says. "The people are spoiled [because they] can place almost anything imaginable on the curb as long as it's not hazardous material, and we'll collect it," he says. "People put it out there, regardless of what it is, and expect it to be gone [with the garbage]. It can be hard to maintain that level of expectation."
Waste Reduction In response to a 1990 Georgia law requiring a 25 percent waste reduction by 1996, the solid waste services department in 1992 created a recycling program. About 10,000 tons of material is collected each year for recycling, Maddox says. Each household is issued a 30-gallon plastic box for glass, aluminum, some plastics and newspapers.
Where recycling rates are high, likewise the disposal costs are the highest, Maddox says. "Recycling is like any other business - it has its demands," he explains. "If you have more product than you have uses for it, the prices tend to go down. Once all of us start to recycle, the market is flooded."
Atlanta, like many other burgeoning Georgia cities, has not reached a 25 percent reduction rate. In 1992, before waste was separated, 310,000 tons were collected. Reducing that load to the 250,000 tons collected today through recycling, composting and residents' own initiatives was an accomplishment, Maddox says.
"Our goal was to get to 250,000 tons, and we got there," he says. "We've not targeted another goal yet."
Composting Catching On About 30,000 tons of waste is composted each year. At a facility in South Fulton County, yard waste and other materials are processed into wood chips, compost and mulch. Five percent of the material then is distributed to residents through a compost giveaway day, typically in April, that the city advertises.
"[Residents] come in droves" to pick up the compost, Maddox says, noting that last year residents hauled away nearly 393 tons of compost in two days. "People come in trucks, and we have to get the police to direct traffic."
The city hopes interest in compost will pick up even more with the support of a puppet show the city produced with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown. Narrated by a talking worm, the show teaches elementary school children in Atlanta about the composting process.
A similar puppet show in 1997 and 1998 educated more than 50,000 children about recycling.
Educational Efforts Maddox says he considers education crucial to Atlanta's success in waste reduction and recycling. That's why the department issues a biannual newsletter, as well as places ads on billboards, in buses and on subway trains.
"We're trying to get our message out so the citizens know what's required of them and know the benefits they can reap [by reducing waste]," Maddox says. "We need to reduce the amount of material that goes to a landfill, and citizens need to prepare materials correctly and know when and where to place items."
This leads to another challenge for the department: disposal. Although the metro area is in the process of closing four landfills, two of which are in the city, the future of waste still includes disposal.
"I don't care what methodology you use [to dispose of waste], a landfill will be necessary," Maddox explains. "If you burn it, you need someplace for the ashes. If you compost it, you need someplace for the byproduct. There's always the need for a landfill."
To that end, Maddox is considering transferring waste outside the city to a private processor or landfill.
He also hints of moving to a fully automated system, but hesitates to supply details. "We haven't zeroed in on any of these options," he says, noting that the future of the department includes managing the current system as well as implementing necessary changes.
"Where there are people, there will continue to be waste that must be disposed of, and the city has the responsibility to manage that process," Maddox says. "We're always striving toward improvement."