It Takes Three

AS THE SAYING GOES, two heads are better than one. It seems that three may be even better for reducing recycling and disposal costs, according to Wisconsin's Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties. Through a cooperative recycling and solid waste plan, the trio is saving $35 million in disposal costs during a 25-year period and saving $8 million in recycling costs during a 12-year period.

In 2001, declining revenues began to affect Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago counties' abilities to offset their recycling costs. The state requires municipalities to provide recycling services. However, competition with the private sector to service solid waste accounts was hurting each community's bottom line.

Each of the three counties operated a materials recovery facility (MRF) and landfill, and wanted to retain their own customers, budget, boards and committees. Nevertheless, municipal officials recognized that if they looked beyond their governmental boundaries, they could share the costs and benefits of group recycling and landfilling, and pass the savings onto residents.

The leaders wanted to increase economies of scale, maximize existing assets and obtain operational savings, says Sherri McNamara, Outagamie County deputy executive administrator. Therefore, the counties agreed to share landfills and MRFs. Each of the three counties' facilities would be used, but one at a time. The Tri-County Cooperative Agreement, signed in 2002, also set a common tipping fee that is competitive with market conditions.

Officials initially discussed using Brown County's landfill first. But because Brown County is the farthest north, Outagamie and Winnebago realized hauling costs would substantially increase. To equalize costs, the counties agreed to begin landfilling at Outagamie. Once this county's landfill cell is filled, the counties will dispose of waste at Winnebago County until its facility reaches capacity, and then return to Outagamie County to fill a second cell. Once the second cell is filled, the counties will finish their disposal at Brown County's new landfill. And because “Brown county just sited its new landfill, this allows them to delay opening the facility for 15 years,” McNamara says.

However, there were a few obstacles to overcome in handling recyclables. Winnebago volunteered its MRF first, but that created a labor issue. The county used state prisoners to process materials and proposed similar personnel for the other two counties' facilities. But the state Department of Corrections objected because officials feared that prison labor might replace workers in other counties. Consequently, Brown County offered to service the consortium at its MRF, which would handle commingled materials. Outagamie County then offered its MRF to handle paper and cardboard, and Winnebago decided to close its facility.

Now that the landfilling and recycling plans are complete, officials from all three counties believe they are providing the most cost-effective services for their residents. In the meantime, the agreement has become a springboard for other regional, cooperative projects. The trio is working on meshing computer-aided dispatch and record management systems for county and municipal public safety personnel.

“At first it was difficult getting people to see that a joint effort was to their advantage,” McNamara says. But having cleared the hurdles of educating county boards, municipalities and the public on the concept of cooperation, the counties are ready to leap ahead to the benefits.