Recycling/Variable Rates: Beyond Case Studies

With tightening municipal budgets and a volatile market, recycling and green waste program planners have had little assistance in choosing cost-effective programs.

Although case studies abound with examples of communities with successful programs, reports featuring a single or a small number of communities are not realistic guides for many of the problems program planners face because of differences in systems, demographics and economics. And separating out the effects of single program changes has been very difficult.

Can the Village of Hartland, Wis., really expect the same results as the City of Houston's program?

While cities are willing to evaluate and refine their programs, they are stymied in deciding what changes make the most sense - numbers and transferable results have been difficult to come by. Although, ironically, thousands of these programs are operating a-cross the country (see chart on page 14).

Some universal truths do hold true, however, according to a re-cent report on specific recycling and yard waste program features that increase diversion. The study, prepared by Skumatz Economic Research Associates (SERA), Seattle, gathered detailed information from more than 500 communities operating programs across North America.

Not surprisingly, yard waste programs were found to strongly affect the outcome of these communities diversion goals. Also, ad-ding extra materials in recycling programs such as mixed paper or junk mail considerably increased the amount that citizens recycled.

The study also pinpointed the amount of material that can be expected to be recovered based on the separate program feature changed. Cities can use this type of information to determine whether the extra material diverted through weekly collection or adding materials, for example, is worth the added program expense - an analysis that must be based on the local community's costs.

The report also found significant differences in program performance between communities depending on variable factors such as urban vs. rural, region, income and population.

The single most effective way to increase recycling and yard waste participation is through pocketbook incentives, according to the analysis. Introducing variable rates or "pay as you throw" can add eight to 11 percent to existing recycling and yard waste programs.

Given 25 percent diversion goals in many areas, clearly, variable rates can work with these programs to get communities a third to almost halfway toward those goals without adding more trucks on the street.

In addition, the report provides information on the data range for collection diversity and program variations in the communities studied. Communities ranging in size from 300 to more than 1 million were surveyed, in rural, suburban and urban areas. Information on budgets, collection method, staffing, efficiencies and a range of other program and collection-related data were compiled.

The respondents included both curbside and drop-off programs. The vast majority of recycling programs collected the same core materials (aluminum, clear and colored glass, newspaper, steel cans). About 80 percent reported collecting PET or HDPE. Mixed waste paper was reported for about half of the programs, and 15 percent reported collecting additional plastics.

About a third of the programs were reported as mandatory, and goals ranged from none, to more than 50 percent, with 25 percent the most common value. About a third reported program changes in the last three years, adding OCC or mixed paper or deleting colored glass as the most commonly reported changes. The range of recycling containers included no ordinary bags, bins, carts and stackables. Programs ranged from pre-1970 to new installations.

Yard waste programs reported collecting various combinations of grass, brush, limbs and leaves. Curbside collection frequencies ranged from weekly to seasonal or "irregular" schedules. Programs were mandatory in about 20 percent of cases; 15 percent of the respondents had yardwaste bans. Al-though program age ranged from pre-1970 to the present, about a quarter of the communities sampled reported no yardwaste programs.

The study was funded cooperatively by a number of agencies, including the National Soft Drink Association, Washington, D.C.; the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, St. Paul, Minn.; the American Plastics Council, Wash-ington, D.C.; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regions 5, Chicago, Ill., and 9, San Francisco; the Steel Recycling Institute, Pittsburgh; SERA, Seattle; and the Reason Foundation, Los Angeles.

For more information or to order a copy of the report, Nationwide Diversion Rate Study - Quantita-tive Effects of Program Choices on Recycling and Green Waste Diver-sion: Beyond Case Studies, contact: Skumatz Economic Research As-sociates Inc., 1511 Third Avenue, Ste. 1000, Seattle, Wash. 98101. (206) 624-8508. Fax: (206) 624-2950.