Revamping Recycling

What's automated, commingled, curbside and embraced by 76 percent of residents in the city of Virginia Beach, Va.? It's a customized recycling program, which compliments the city's existing automated waste collection service by diverting approximately 40,000 tons of material, or 20 percent per year, from the residential waste stream.

The curbside program, designed by a team of Virginia Beach employees and introduced to residents in 1996, is made possible through a public-private partnership with Tidewater Fibre Corp. (TFC), Chesapeake, Va., one of the largest private recycling and collection companies on the East Coast. To accommodate Virginia Beach's desire for a commingled, automated program, TFC invested $8 million to construct one of the first single-stream, automated materials recovery facilities (MRFs) in the United States with a capacity of approximately 60,000 tons per year. And what resulted is a partnership that allows both organizations to become leaders in the recycling effort.

Environmentally Friendly City As the largest city in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a population of 439,889, Virginia Beach earned its reputation as an environmentally conscious community long before recycling became in vogue. The city is home to Mount Trashmore, a 68-foot high, 162-acre landfill park that opened in 1973. By 1986, Virginia Beach became the first city in the Mid-Atlantic region to fully automate its waste collection service, according to Wade Kyle, Virginia Beach waste management administrator. The same year, the city introduced its innovative yard debris trailer program, which assists residents with debris removal resulting from large-scale pruning free of charge.

"Clean the Bay Day," where thousands of volunteers clean 150 miles of Chesapeake Bay shoreline and collect several hundred tons of debris, is an example of the many environmental clean-ups sponsored by the Virginia Beach Clean Community Commission.

In 1988, to reduce the amount of landfilled waste, Virginia Beach began collecting newspapers at drop-off centers at public schools and participating in a regional curbside recycling service with the Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA), Chesapeake, Va. SPSA also provides recycling services for the cities Boykins, Chesapeake, Franklin, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and the Town of Ivor. This service, however, required residents to sort the materials at the curb, so by 1996, Virginia Beach began searching for a more user-friendly program. During this time, the city established 50 drop-off centers to handle the recyclables.

The Virginia Beach Department of Public Works Waste Management Division worked diligently to created a service that would meet the expectations of both residents and city leadership. A request for proposals was issued, and out of five private contractors, TFC was selected to provide the service.

Let's Mingle: The Partnership TFC and the city of Virginia Beach signed a five-year, renewable contract in March 1997. A family-owned-and-operated business founded in 1973, TFC was established more than 100 years ago in New York, and now is the largest recycler in Virginia.

TFC invested approximately $8 million for a new, 35,000-square-foot facility, including an automated sorting and processing system, a fleet of 20 trucks primarily using Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Heil 7000 automated bodies. In addition, TFC purchased 113,000 95-gallon automated containers manufactured by Plastic Omnium Zarn, Reidsville, N.C.

"Having the proper equipment is extremely important," says Joseph Benedetto III, who, like his brother Michael, is a TFC vice president. Pointing to a massive system of conveyer belts that take turns dumping, sorting and sifting through materials, he says, "Systems like this weren't around four to five years ago. It's a relatively new concept in processing recycling materials."

One key strength is TFC's ability to market the recyclables. "Tidewater Fibre [has] a number of long-standing contacts with purchasing agents, buyers and sellers," Kyle says. "That experience really [impressed] us during the contract negotiation phase. Equipment can be bought and other aspects of a program can be learned, but there's no substitute for knowing the market."

TFC markets products primarily in the southeastern United States, but also targets international markets. The largest volume product is paper, and TFC is the largest collector and recycler of newspaper in Virginia, according to Benedetto. Thus, the right equipment and the expertise to market the product are not only important, they go hand in hand, he says.

"We've always been very strong on the marketing side of the industry," Benedetto adds. "This equipment does a good job and makes it easier for us to take the materials and make a quality product that can be recycled."

With strong marketing, TFC can guarantee a municipality that it'll be able to earn revenue with a program, Benedetto says. The company's current list of municipal contracts includes the cities of Durham and Southern Shores, N.C.; Newport News, Va.; and several communities surrounding Richmond, Va.

To help insure the new program's success, a team of city staff and TFC representatives outlined 16 major task areas and 129 individual tasks. The task areas included:

* internal training;

* risk management;

* route development;

* container distribution;

* required resources;

* route map production;

* recycling database development;

* media/public relations plan development;

* education plan development;

* developing a communication plan between the city and contractor;

* drop-off recycling centers;

* communication procedures for the public;

* billing procedures;

* temporary container storage areas;

* an implementation time line; and

* townhouse collection.

By November 1997, with the help of TFC, Virginia Beach delivered containers to approximately 113,000 homes over a three-month period. When the project was fully implemented, curbside recycling service was provided to residents every other week on their normal waste collection day. Single-family homes received the 95-gallon automated containers; townhomes received the 18-gallon bins.

Additionally, Virginia Beach staff helped TFC map driver routes, trained TFC to operate and maintain the new trucks, and invited TFC drivers to attend city-sponsored safety training classes.

The Bottom Line The cost of Virginia Beach's curbside recycling service and collection at 20 drop-off sites, down from 50 sites, is approximately $4 million annually. Additionally, by diverting more than 40,000 tons of waste to the new recycling system, the city is saving $2 million annually in avoided collection and disposal costs. This, coupled with the city's waste management division reducing its operating costs by $800,000, has brought the net cost for recycling services down to $1 per household per month.

More noteworthy, however, is that the new system generates income, of which Virginia Beach receives a 15 percent net revenue share, but is not responsible for financial losses. Currently, TFC pays Virginia Beach between $3,000 to $4,000 per month in revenue.

The major advantage for residents is that the new program allows recyclables to be commingled. Collected materials include newspapers, magazines, unwanted mail, cardboard boxes, cereal and food boxes, paper grocery bags and telephone books. Clear, green and brown glass bottles and jars, all plastic bottles, aluminum, and steel/tin cans and foil also are collected.

According to Debbie Devine, Virginia Beach's recycling coordinator since 1990, the tangible benefits to the public include a larger, more convenient container for storage between collection days, an increased number of recyclable materials and the positive feelings that come from helping the environment.

The numbers tell the story. After introducing the new automated program, Virginia Beach's recycling participation rate - previously 50 percent with the manual bin program - increased to 76 percent. Likewise, the tonnages of recyclables collected increased from 10,000 to 40,000 annually. "Overall, a collection program like this one has a much higher participation rate than other programs where the bins are smaller and aren't automated," Devine says of the voluntary program.

"It has been a big plus on the operational side," adds Anderson "Sonny" Foreman, superintendent of waste collection and a 35-year veteran of the city. "Because of the new recycling program, our guys are picking up about 25 percent less garbage than we were before. We used to get a lot of calls from customers who needed a special garbage pick-up in addition to their regular collection day. But, thanks to recycling, there's more room in their trash containers and there's been a reduction in those calls."

These benefits outweigh the challenges, Benedetto says, which included initial difficulties working with a new technology to produce quality products. "Once that container is on the curb, you don't know what's inside until it's in the truck or out on the processing floor," he says. "But the benefit of the commingled program obviously is volume. These large containers can collect five times as much as the smaller bins and they have a lid which helps keep materials dry and prevents them from blowing around."

Educating the Customer Since the voluntary program's success depends on the citizen's cooperation, Virginia Beach and TFC worked together on the public education efforts. "We all have our roles and responsibilities," Devine says. "The citizen has to read the lid and put the right items in the cart. Virginia Beach is a fairly transient community - people come from other cities and they bring their own recycling ethic. They may know about recycling and even be committed to it, but may not know about the specifics of our program. Our responsibility is to keep the message out there. This way, Tidewater Fibre gets a product they can sell and make money from in a volatile market."

Citizens are given many gentle reminders to recycle. For example, Virginia Beach's Public Works Waste Management Office greets visitors with a sign that says: "This porch was built with lumber made of plastic milk jugs collected through our city recycling service."

"The goal is not to lose a customer, but to educate a customer, " Devine says. "Some people were skeptical after our partnership with the regional service ended, but we expected that. We used an extensive marketing plan to get them interested in the new program and to let them know how easy the commingled program would make recycling for them."

The newly distributed carts also included a note: "Please give this new curbside recycling service a 30-day trial. If it doesn't meet your expectations, call 430-2450. Let's make this recycling program work, together!" As a result, 99 percent of residents accepted the cart. Those who refused the cart still could use drop-off centers to dispose of their recyclables.

Other marketing components included a brochure that coaxed residents to: "Just push it to the curb and we'll take it from there." Posters also were hung in local recreation centers, libraries and other public meeting sites. As a result, the recycling participation rate soared, doubling and tripling that of other municipalities, Devine says.

But education is ongoing, she adds. More recently, these efforts have shifted from selling residents on the value of recycling to coaching them on what materials are acceptable.

TFC drivers also play an important role in quality control. While on their routes, drivers will place "tag" notices on carts that contain inappropriate materials. A list of first-time tagged residents is given to Devine, who then sends a letter thanking them for recycling but listing common items seen in their containers that aren't accepted. Usually one letter is enough to get them to comply, Devine says.

Additionally, each quarter, the city runs an ad in the local newspaper about its recycling progress. "The message reads, 'We've collected X number of cans and bottles and we thank you ... but don't forget to pay attention to the products you're putting in the cart," Devine says.

Two short videos produced by VBTV, the city's public access channel, further complement the city's education campaign.

In "It's on the Lid," a Virginia Beach high school drama student places her family's recyclables into a container and rolls it to the curb for pick-up. She introduces items that don't belong in the recycling cart and tosses them onto a stack, such as pool liners, plastic bags and old tires. The video, a finalist in the NATOA Government Programming Awards video competition, has been shown at civic league meetings and to high school and middle school children.

"The Re-use Do's" video targets elementary school children and is a resource tool for teachers.

When a child tosses an old toy truck into the recycling bin, the cart comes alive, spits the toy out and talks about the importance of recycling the correct items.

Without such efforts, the city would have difficulty achieving its lofty recycling goals, Kyle says. "We're very pleased to have a 76 percent participation rate, but we want it to be 100 percent," he says. "We'll always strive for that goal. The more tonnage we get, the more direct savings to the city."

"When you look at our recycling effort, we've had some high points and some low," Devine adds. "But we took a negative and turned it into a positive. The real accolades go to our customers. We've kept them in mind and that's been the key to our success."

Customers: 115,000.

Participation Rate: 76%

Program Type: automated, commingled, 95-gallon cart

Yearly Tonnage Recycled: 34,575

* Cost per Household/Month: $1

* Cost per Ton: $39.46

Annual Revenue: $25,269

Waste Stream Reduced: 20%

City's Population: 439,889

Number of Square Land Miles: 258

* Includes avoided disposal costs, avoided collection costs and revenue