Milwaukee's Best: Is Getting Better Is Getting Better

Driven by an environmentally-aware mayor and Common Council, not to mention state mandates that came with money attached, Milwaukee is on the verge of expanding its recycling program citywide.

In about a year, a program that began as a 1989 pilot project for 36,000 households will be available to all of the city's 190,000 households in buildings of four living units or less. (Larger buildings are considered commercial structures and the owners must contract privately for recycling services.)

In 1990, the recycling program involved 45,000 households; in 1991 63,000 households; and in 1992, 90,000. By the end of this year, 135,000 households will be participating.

The program has had success. In 1992, approximately 11,000 tons of recyclable materials were collected, and the total amount of landfilled waste decreased by 5,000 tons. About 3.4 percent of all recyclable materials have been disposed as residue, which is one of the lowest landfill residue rates in the country.

Lessons Learned While much will be different when the program is fully implemented in 1994 than it was when it began in 1989, the city still is capitalizing on what it learned that first year. A fundamental fact that remains a cornerstone of the city's program: "There was a large public acceptance for recycling if it is convenient. . . . Frankly, I think there's pretty widespread acceptance we have to do something about the environment," Steven D. Brachman, the resource recovery manager said.

And among the more prosaic lessons the city learned was that "the bigger the truck and the more automation we could get on it, the better," he said.

The city tried trailers and manual trucks, but selected a semi-automatic truck that required sanitation workers to lift the recyclables to about waist level before dumping them.

It also decided that 18-gallon bins would be best for residential recycling collection. Fourteen-gallon bins were too small, and the technology did not yet exist that would make cart use practicable, Brachman said. The costs involved with the distribution of recycling bags made that option too expensive, he said.

City employees collected the recyclables from the pilot areas, but the sorting and processing at the materials recovery facility (MRF) was done by Waste Management of Wisconsin.

The city deliberately selected a variety of neighborhoods with differing socio-economic makeups for the pilot project. An informational campaign was launched, and the city measured the effectiveness of its messages.

"We did learn that direct mail was our best method of communication, better than newspapers, TV, billboards," Brachman said.

Legal Mandates The public acceptance grew more important as the state legislature in Madison adopted a law that mandated municipal recycling programs. A grant program totaling more than $200 million over 10 years was established to help the communities set up and maintain those programs. Business taxes fund the program.

The law required that the city and other municipalities reduce its waste stream to landfills by 25 percent by 1995 (inspiring the recycling cry of "25 by '95!") and established a series of disposal bans.

Appliances, waste oil and lead acid batteries were banned from landfills as of January 1991.

Yard waste was prohibited as of January this year.

And newspapers, corrugated paper, office paper and magazines will be banned as of January 1995.

Foam polystyrene packaging, waste tires and containers made of aluminum, glass, steel, plastic and bimetal also will be banned then.

The law also required Milwaukee to: * Educate and inform residents on waste reduction and recycling;

* Adopt and enforce a recycling ordinance to require recycling the banned materials;

* Provide curbside collection of separated recyclables from single family and 2- to 4-unit residences monthly;

* Provide a processing and marketing system for the recyclable materials collected from residential dwellings up to 4 units; and

* Track program results and meet minimum collection requirements.

Milwaukee does not yet have any requirement that its residents recycle.

A local recycling ordinance probably will be considered within a year or so, Brachman said, but until then, any success the recycling program has is dependent on the public's willingness to participate.

Public Relations The effort to maintain citizens' good will is continuing. Informational letters were mailed to households in this year's expansion area. When recycling carts are delivered, recycled plastic litter bags holding reference cards and refrigerator magnets with recycling instructions are given away, too.

Mayor John O. Norquist and members of the Common Council helped deliver carts to get publicity for the project.

A recycling program and curriculum were introduced into the public school system. Students from six area high schools produced "Recycle TV," a half-hour television show, that was distributed to all the city's middle and high schools and was aired on cable television.

The recycling program, at about $200 per ton, is rather expensive. The regular garbage collection costs the city about $110 to $115 per ton. The cost of recycling to city property taxpayers is less than it is for garbage pickup because the state pays for about two-thirds of the $6 million recycling budget. The state aids will expire in 1999, Brachman said; he's not sure what will happen.

"By '99, will it still be cheaper without the state aids? I am not sure," he said.

Some of the price the city is now paying can be attributed to the high start-up costs involved, Brachman said.

Once the initial capital investments are made, the cost should drop to about $150 per ton.

The gap between the costs of recycling and dumping in landfills also should close somewhat as the cost of landfill space increases, he said.

Partly in an effort to save money, Milwaukee is switching from its red recycling bins, which seemed like such a good idea just a few years ago, to 95-gallon blue recycling carts.

The change to carts allowed the city to switch from weekly pickups to pickups once a month in areas where carts have replaced bins. Although Milwaukee officials still are trying to determine the optimum cart pickup frequency.

"Is [recycling collection] once a month or is it every 20 days?" Brachman said.

Collection Methods The new carts are divided in half vertically. One side holds newspaper; the other holds containers of aluminum, steel, bimetals, glass and #1 and #2 plastics.

There is also the question if residents will remember when their recyclable materials will be collected. "It's one thing to say to people with a bin, 'Your day is Monday,'" Brachman said. "It's another to say 'It is the fourth Monday.'"

Right now, there are 63,000 bins throughout Milwaukee. There are 30,000 carts, and there will be a total of 72,000 carts by the end of the year.

The switch to carts, manufactured by Otto Industries Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., is married to another significant event - the development of a truck that allows collection to be fully automated.

The truck has a small fin on a spring that protrudes from the back. As the cart is lifted, it hits the fin and then is pushed back into the truck. The newspaper falls on one side of the divided collection truck; the containers then fall on the other side of the truck.

The new trucks can hold around 15,000 pounds, while the old trucks capacity was about 9,000 pounds. The new trucks can be on the road longer, which increases the efficiency of the fleet.

When recycling is fully implemented, the capital cost of the cart system is expected to be $14.2 million. The new trucks cost approximately $125,000 each, and the carts are priced at $53 apiece.

Capital costs for the bin system would have been much lower, at about $7 million.

Each of the old-style trucks was about $100,000 and the bins were $4 each.

Still, the city is calculating significant savings - roughly $235,000 annually when the capital costs are amortized. Because the cart system will require 38 routes instead of the 45 the bin system needs, the operating costs for the cart system will be roughly $3 million a year, while the bin system would cost $3.7 million to run.

Worker Injury The city also hopes the changes in receptacles and trucks will reduce worker injuries.

Worker injuries have doubled among Bureau of Sanitation employees since 1990. There were 98 recorded injuries from December 20 through June 19, the first 13 payroll periods of this year. That is up from 49 injuries during the same period in 1990, according to a city report.

The number of lost workdays skyrocketed from 309 during the first half of 1990 to 1,350 this year.

Use of the recycling bins, which must be hand-lifted and dumped in the truck, is partly responsible for the increase of the city's worker injuries, according to Milwaukee's Bureau of Sanitation Superintendent David J. Lorbeske.

"People are making that lift and bending motion several hundred times a day," he said.

Besides replacing bins with carts, the city is replacing carts that have inserts that require workers to lift up to 60 pounds of newspaper at a time, which can lead to injuries, he said.

Carts have another advantage.

In 1992, the overall monthly participation rates for areas supplied with carts was greater than 90 percent; for those areas supplied with bins, it was about 70 percent.

The latter "places Milwaukee among the top five recycling cities of comparable size and programs in the nation," according to a city report.

Encouraging Participation But officials want to do better. While the overall participation rates looked good, they varied widely by neighborhood.

In one central city area, more than 50 percent of the carts were found to have other garbage in them as well as recyclable material. In contrast, another neighborhood reported a low contamination rate of 3 to 4 percent.

And in a central city area that is supplied with the bins, the weekly "set out" rate was a dismal 8 percent; the area with the greatest participation had a 55 percent set-out rate.

The city's communications effort was successful in many neighborhoods, Brachman said, but "In areas where you have high turnover or language problems, I don't think it has been as effective as it could be."

Monthly quality circles of drivers and others involved in the recycling program discussed the problem. Instructional tags were left in contaminated carts. Recyclable materials were removed from carts and the contaminants left behind. But the efforts had minimal effect.

"One thing that would help inner city recycling is a bottle bill [that would require refundable deposits for bottles]," Brachman said.

"It wouldn't help us with papers but it would help with containers."

Armed with a $142,000 demonstration grant from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the city is just getting a new inner city outreach effort underway. The city plans to hire neighborhood youths to participate in an intensive door-to-door information campaign. Community-based organizations also will be recruited to spread the word and encourage participation. In addition, direct mail and public relations efforts will be increased.

But, Brachman noted, "We haven't said to Milwaukee citizens, 'Thou shalt recycle. It's the law.'"

Educating Residents Brachman said the situation is analogous to the city's experience with yard waste.

Before the ban on yard waste took effect, the city spent a great deal of time and energy exhorting residents to "Just Say Mow," and to divert the wastes from the landfills.

The effort to educate had some effect, but city residents did not pay full attention to the matter until July of last year when the city adopted its own yard waste ban in anticipation of a Wisconsin state ban, Brachman said.

Even after total confusion and opposition led the Common Council to exempt all garden debris from the ban until this year, 75 percent less yard waste was discovered in Milwaukee's waste stream in the fall of 1992 than in the fall of 1991, said city figures.

"Although it is not possible to track exactly how many tons of grass clippings were left on lawns, it is known that more than 7,500 tons of leaves [and other wastes] that would normally have been landfilled were collected and composted," according to a city report. The report estimated savings of more than approximately $150,000.

Grass clippings accounted for about 3 percent of the waste stream after the ban. This figure is down from the usual growing season average of 21 percent, the Milwaukee report said.

As the city increases the amount of recyclable materials it collects, it still is faced with the constant question of what to do with the collected materials.

Developing Markets Thus far, several efforts have been made to improve the market for recyclable products.

For example, Milwaukee helped local industry find recycled materials for manufacturing and assisted entrepreneurs whose products are manufactured from recycled materials. Milwaukee also has encouraged city agencies and the private sector to buy products with recycled materials content.

This year, the city hired a coordinator to assist in marketing its recyclables.

The city signed a new $6 million, seven-year recycling contract with New England CRInc., who will be responsible for marketing and processing the city's recyclables and converting an abandoned refuse-derived-fuel plant into a 200-ton-per-day MRF.

As Milwaukee's suburban neighbors become more involved in recycling, Brachman said, it is hoped they will take advantage of the city's new facility by contracting to use the MRF.

It is a "myth" that recycling markets are poor, he said. "The markets are actually pretty good."

Glass is not paying a lot, "but it's moving," Brachman said. Glass comprised 7 percent of recyclable materials that were processed last year and only 1 percent of marketing revenue.

Newsprint, which accounted for 59 percent of recyclables processed, accounted for 38 percent of revenue, the largest share of both categories. The market for newsprint is looking better, Brachman said.

Aluminum, which made up less than 1 percent of the recyclable material handled, accounted for 24 percent of revenue. Most aluminum never makes it into the hands of Milwaukee.

Residents recycle much of it themselves, and a lot of the rest is scavenged for cash, Brachman said.

Under its contract with Waste Management, the city split with the firm the money from the sale of the materials. Last year, the city received $139,300, partially offsetting processing costs of $430,900.

That shared revenue clause was dropped from the new contract with CRInc., and the firm will keep all the marketing revenue.

"Markets for recyclables are similar to the future commodities' markets and are never a sure bet," a city report said. "[Milwaukees] ability to successfully use these markets looks bright in 1993 and 1994 unless the economy makes an unexpected downturn.

"Although the paper markets are beginning to show signs of revitalization, other markets are still developing," the report said. "The city will expand collection to meet [Wisconsin] requirements by 1995, while phasing in materials with the strongest markets first."

The city faces challenges in its recycling program as 1995 looms ever closer, Brachman said. It must hold down costs and maintain its edge in a field where the technology changes quickly.

And it must meet the "25 by '95" mandate.

Currently, Brachman said, about 15 percent to 17 percent of the waste stream has been diverted from landfills in the areas with recycling.

"The city will need to continue aggressive waste reduction efforts to significantly reduce its dependence upon landfilling for solid waste management," according to the Milwaukee report.

"Ongoing efforts to educate Milwaukeeans in home waste reduction strategies, including composting, yard waste and mulching, reuse of bottles and textiles and smart shopping will remain a high priority.

"If aggressive waste reduction and recycling efforts are maintained, the city should be able to meet the state-mandated 25 percent waste recycling goal by 1995."