Cincinnati: A City at a Crossroads

Faced with a local landfill filling up, this community is considering options to reshape its solid waste system.

If you've ever wondered whether Cincinnati's solid waste business was as trivial as what was broadcast on the hit television show WKRP, think again. Home to this year's Solid Waste Association of North America's (SWANA) WASTECON show, Cincinnati has a well-established solid waste and recycling system that is ripe for competition and on the verge of change.

As the transportation, industrial and commercial center for a tri-state region extending over southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana, Cincinnati's 350,000 population is the largest in Hamilton County. Residential solid waste management is handled by the city solid waste division, which serves approximately 128,000 single-family homes and small apartment buildings, as well as approximately 12,000 commercial, store-front operations with weekly curbside collection.

“Our law is kind of strange the way it's worded in that it provides for collection of ‘putrescible garbage,’ which extends to small businesses that collect wet garbage,” says Karl Graham, city solid waste manager. “Most businesses, as well as institutions and larger commercial establishments in the city, are served by the private sector.”

According to Graham, the market for solid waste and recycling services among Cincinnati's commercial sector is extremely competitive. This is because much of the city's economy is manufacturing-based (Proctor and Gamble, The Kroger Co. and General Electric all have plants in the area), and opportunities to tap into commercial waste are ripe.

Cincinnati-based Rumpke Consolidated Companies, which holds the city's municipal recycling contract, has a dominant presence in the city. However, a host of other companies including Waste Management Inc., Houston, Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Republic Services Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., operate successfully in Cincinnati and in other areas of Hamilton County.

Cincinnati's solid waste operations are inextricably tied to the county. For instance, while the city handles its own solid waste and contracts for recyclables collection, Hamilton County, operating under the authority of the Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District, helps Cincinnati businesses conduct waste assessments and internal audits to increase waste diversion.

“Basically, we give technical support wherever we can,” says Jeff Aluotto, the District's manager. “We help county and city residents with various waste diversion activities.”

Created in 1988 as an umbrella organization to divert waste going to landfills, the District is part of a network of 40-plus solid waste districts in Ohio charged with the same mission. Working in conjunction with the District, Cincinnati set a waste diversion goal of 35 percent by 2001 and 60 percent by 2016. City and county officials work closely together to achieve these rates.

“We have an outstanding relationship,” Graham says. “In times when the city and county have argued about various public issues, solid waste management issues have been an exception.”

This relationship is important as the city and county face some tough solid waste management issues in the near future — most notably dealing with the closure of the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill, located approximately 11 miles from Cincinnati. The landfill, the largest in Ohio, has approximately four remaining years, Aluotto predicts. Currently, the landfill accepts residential solid waste from Cincinnati as well as from other sources throughout Hamilton County and Ohio.

An initial rezoning application to expand the landfill was approved by Hamilton County, but the trustees from the township where the landfill is located subsequently denied the application; the application since has been transferred to federal court.

So while the future of the state's primary landfill is uncertain, Cincinnati solid waste officials continue to tweak their residential solid waste management program. Recently, the city began experimenting with 90-gallon wheeled carts to improve curbside route collection efficiency.

“From a collection standpoint, we really like them,” Graham says of the new carts. “They clean up the neighborhoods, and they're safer for employees.” The carts also are more efficient on the city's many hilly streets, he adds.

Residential waste is collected from 30-gallon containers with a semi-automated system that uses rear loaders equipped with tippers. “It's a system that works, but there's always room for improvement,” Graham says.

Reinventing Recycling

Like its solid waste program, Cincinnati's residential recycling program is effective but has room to grow. Begun in 1989, the program is operated by Rumpke, which has held a full-service contract since 1995 to collect and market materials from residents. As with other mature recycling programs around the country, both city and company officials want to rejuvenate the program.

One area officials are seeking to improve is increasing participation. Currently, approximately 39 percent of eligible residents actually participate, Graham says. “Participation in our curbside recycling program has flattened out — there's been very little growth in recent years,” he says. “Finding creative ways to try to get people to recycle is a real challenge. Communicating with the public is a never-ending battle; there are so many things competing for the business that it's hard to get your voice heard.”

Rumpke, in conjunction with Cincinnati recycling officials, currently is conducting a billboard advertising campaign to remind residents to use the program. “Our current campaign features billboards that read, ‘Bin provided, just add …’ with the appropriate materials graphically displayed,” says Jeff Raffenberg, Rumpke's recycling market manager.

According to Raffenberg and Graham, participation and volume increased shortly after Rumpke took over the program from Browning-Ferris Industries Inc. five years ago. By increasing the number of materials collected, most notably corrugated containers, the department collected between 12,000 tons per year and 13,000 tons per year vs. its previous 10,000 tons per year. This also is today's annual curbside recycling tonnage rate.

Although the amount of materials collected from residents has remained fairly constant in recent years, Cincinnati's recycling rate has increased slightly every year. Today, the city diverts more than 35 percent of its waste from landfills, Graham says. That figure also includes yard waste, which is collected on the same day as curbside recyclables. In the end, however, Cincinnati still landfilled nearly 118,000 tons of solid waste last year.

The materials from the city's curbside program are processed at Rumpke's Cincinnati-based materials recovery facility (MRF), which later markets them through a mix of long- and short-term agreements with local, regional and international vendors.

“We're fortunate that we have a lot of mills in the area — Inland Container and Weyerhaeuser — and we have agreements with them,” Raffenberg says. Other outlets for fiber, which comprises approximately 75 percent by weight of incoming materials to the curbside recycling program, include businesses in Alabama and Georgia, as well as Canada, Mexico and several Asia countries.

“We hit it all,” Raffenberg says.

With recyclables markets currently fluctuating, Rumpke's size has worked in its favor. “With the volumes we generate, we can market as a corporate volume,” Raffenberg says. “We have a lot of people coming to us because we have control of a lot of volume. It enables us to get a lot of contracts.”

“We have guaranteed movement of materials, which is important,” he continues. “For example, right now paper markets are bad, but you wouldn't go to the city of Cincinnati and say, ‘Hey, I can't handle your paper today.’”

While marketing recyclable materials is left to Rumpke, and increasing public participation is handled by both Rumpke and the city, the District is responsible for finding creative ways to increase recycling and waste diversion in Hamilton County. As such, the District offers several programs to its constituent cities using market development grants, a waste materials exchange and waste assistance. The District also provides grants for specific recycling projects such as a paint reblending program in Cincinnati, which, after five years in operation, has become a viable recycling business [See Making Old Paint Look Good on page 67].

Additional recycling assistance is provided through the District's Residential Recycling Incentive Program. The program, which is sustained by a $1 million fund raised through landfill fees, offers financial incentives to local governments that are commensurate with the amount of materials they recycled. Cincinnati received approximately $300,000 last year for recycling 13,000 tons of materials, or approximately $23 per ton of material recycled.

“At the time the [Residential Recycling Incentive Program] was devised, Cincinnati and Hamilton County already had a recycling and processing infrastructure in place,” Graham says. The District didn't want to duplicate that effort and asked both citizens and local townships which actions would be helpful,” he adds. “Not surprisingly, people said, ‘send us money and help us out.’” The result is a popular way to encourage recycling without interfering with existing systems, Graham says.

The Verge of a Transition

While the city and the District work to improve local recycling and waste diversion efforts, officials still are concerned about the possibility that Cincinnati's primary landfill will close. This, along with other potential program changes in the near future, all threaten to reshape Cincinnati's solid waste management scene.

“On the surface, everything looks status quo in the county,” says the District's Aluotto. “We've had curbside recycling for 10 years, and everyone is getting used to the solid waste system in Hamilton County. But, in many ways, we are approaching a crossroads.”

Although Rumpke's sanitary landfill has approximately four years of life left, the city's contract there expires at the end of this year. Currently, the city disposes the majority of its residential waste at Rumpke's landfill; a small portion travels a more distant landfill in Boone County, Ky., which is owned by Bavarian Trucking Co.

In lieu of a new landfill, Cincinnati is considering siting a transfer station within its city limits in the near future. “Closer-in landfills are closing down and transfer stations are becoming a necessity,” Graham says. Although the major operators in Cincinnati operate transfer stations in or nearby the city, a number of companies could benefit from another facility, Graham adds. “With a transfer station, you expand the number of companies competing.”

A citizen review board currently is researching a facility site. “Eventually, we'll do in-depth outreach to neighbors that are involved in a possible short list of sights,” Graham says. “Our goal is to have the group recommend to the city manager one or more locations by the end of the year.” The city likely would join with a private company that also could benefit from a transfer station.

“The site selection process for the proposed transfer station really strikes to the heart of how we plan for solid waste management issues,” Graham adds. “Right now, we're throwing caution to the wind and planning ahead.”

Although not anticipated before the end of this year, a positive decision on Rumpke's rezoning application or expansion could extend the landfill's life by only another four or five years — another reason to look into alternate disposal plans. In addition, past slope stability problems at Rumpke's landfill add some credence to the ‘don't throw all your eggs in one basket approach,’ Graham says.

Fortunately, there are other landfills operating in the tri-state region, although none are as close and cost-efficient as Cincinnati's current disposal option. The District is required to demonstrate plans for sufficient disposal capacity and has done so for the next 15 years.

“We've identified disposal capacity for the District within a 200-mile radius,” Aluotto says. “There are other options available for us.”

Aside from Rumpke's sanitary landfill and Bavarian's site approximately 23 miles from Hamilton County, other nearby disposal facilities include Republic's Epperson Landfill, approximately 40 miles from Cincinnati, and another Rumpke-owned landfill in Pendleton County, Ky., approximately 28 miles away. Tip fees at these landfills average between $25 per ton and $35 per ton — a little bit below the Midwest average, Graham says.

Cincinnati can ship its waste to other states, which is essential to its solid waste management plans. “Because we are a border city, we have a slightly radical view of interstate waste issues than some of our more rural counties in the state,” Graham says. “Interstate waste restrictions in the future could have a negative impact on us. While we should not have large amounts of waste coming in, because we live in a three-state waste shed, the most efficient way to dispose of our waste is to have the flexibility to ship interstate.”

Regardless of the outcome, city officials, “along with Cincinnati and every other city in the district, are looking at our cost infrastructure,” Aluotto says. “If [Rumpke's] application is denied, people are asking if they'll be stuck with no one picking up their garbage, but that won't be the question,” he adds. “The question will be, ‘How much will it cost?’ We're looking for the city to provide more cost-effective waste management. That's probably going to be one of the largest issues to affect the county.”

“We face a number of challenges on a number of different fronts,” Graham adds. “Clearly, we need to be careful about what we do now because it will impact solid waste management in Cincinnati for a long time to come.”

Kathleen White is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Portland, Ore.