As I noted in my previous blog post about our county’s Recycle Program updates, Montgomery County Executive Isaiah Leggett recently increased our county’s recycle rate goal from 50% to 70% by 2020. In addition to nearly 20 area residents, 3 key speakers attended the March 25, 2013, Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board Committee meeting to talk about what Montgomery County and the local municipalities are doing to help meet this new recycling goal. You may ask “What does this mean to me? How does this ambitious goal affect our neighborhoods?” As Montgomery County already boasts a very high residential recycling rate, to meet the 70% goal, we will need to increase the number of recycle collection containers in public areas in our central business districts (CBDs), which is the subject of this blog post. To this end, the key speakers were Eileen Kao, the Chief of the Recycling Section for the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection; Yvette Freeman, Chief of Operations for the Silver Spring Urban District; and Rohan Ross, Solid waste & Recycling Supervisor for the City of Takoma Park. You may recall that my previous blog post was about the diversion of food waste, which was also discussed at this March 25th meeting.
To help us understand the issue, Ms. Kao provided some background on the county recycle program. She noted that the county recycle program began in the early 1990s. Since then, the county has been expanding the program continually, while making recycling more convenient. For example, last June, the county’s recycling program expanded to include more categories of plastics. As part of their effort to expand recycling, Ms. Kao’s staff provides outreach and education to single family households and to managers of multi-family housing units. Ms. Kao explained that our country’s recycle program is driven by market supply and demand. Before the county will start collecting new waste for recycling, the county must first find strong, stable markets for those materials. Thankfully, because of the country’s reputation for efficiently and consistently providing a clean, quality commodity, the county has been able to find markets for many recyclable waste commodities. Currently the only plastic the county cannot find a buyer for is polystyrene (Plastic Code #6, polystyrene includes Styrofoam).
To further our understanding, Ms. Freeman then provided a quick update on public recycling in the Silver Spring Urban District (SSUD). There have been earlier attempts by the SSUD to implement a public recycling program; however, the cost required and emissions created to transport the material to the Shady Grove Recycle Center were not financially or environmentally sustainable. Not long ago, Silver Spring Green approached the SSUD staff about installing a new public recycling program similar to the system in Bethesda. According to Ms. Freeman, the SSUD will restart its public recycling program, but will be taking “baby steps” in the implementation. Ten recycling receptacles have already been purchased. To increase local awareness and involvement, Silver Spring businesses are being asked to sponsor recycling containers. In fact, United Therapeutics has already agreed to sponsor three or four containers. Initially, the SSUD will be collecting just bottles and cans. The new public recycle containers will have plaques with “Did You Know” information, Quick Response (QR) Code for additional resources, and Silver Spring Green and the SSUD logos. A large-scale waste program has been proposed and Ms. Freeman explained that the FY 2014 county budget contains a request for funding new trash receptacles, as well as 30 additional recycling containers. According to Ms. Freeman, the existing trash receptacles are very old and worn out, so the SSUD staff would like to use new trash and recycle bins to create a more uniform look. Furthermore, considering the great number of residents with canine companions, there is a request for funding a “Doggy Waste Station.” As of the March Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board Committee meeting, the funding was in the County Executive’s budget, and it was before County Council. If funded, the Silver Spring Urban district will have a total of 40 new recycle containers. According to Ms. Freeman, this is the minimum needed to make the public recycle program financially feasible. The main cost of the public recycle program is having a reliable collection of the recyclables from the collection bins, and Silver Spring is looking to balance cost and frequency with a three-time per week pick-up. The cost issue is that the county’s recycling contract cannot include servicing the new containers in the urban CBD’s. Unfortunately, the result seems to be a more expensive and piecemeal approach to collecting recyclables for non-residential customers, like the urban districts. To be cost effective and use economies of scale, the SSUD is planning to use the Bethesda Urban Partnership to service the trash and recycle containers.
Continuing the conversation, Mr. Ross noted that there are 116 public space trash and recycling containers in the City of Takoma Park. Unlike Montgomery County, Takoma Park uses a “single stream” approach to managing recyclables. Single stream recycling means that all recycled items are mixed together in one collection container, no separating paper into a separate bin. The containers are serviced five days a week. Residents pay a tax /pick-up fee and the materials are taken to Prince George’s County for processing. Like Montgomery County’s program, the city’s recycle program finances are dependent on the market strength for recyclable materials. Currently, the city earns some revenue from the recyclable materials, offsetting the cost of removal; however when there is less demand for the materials, the city has had to pay to have them removed.
For many municipalities like Takoma Park, a single stream approach is simpler and less costly. Ms. Kao notes that the county uses a “dual steam” approach, with paper separated from other materials and then further sorting of glass, plastic, and metal before selling them. The county uses a dual stream system in part because such a high percentage of residential homes already participate, separating the paper/cardboard from the commingled recyclables. Ms. Kao explained that it is more cost effective for the county to continue separating its recyclable materials because it already has a strong separation infrastructure. The advantage to separating the paper and cardboard from the bottles and cans is that the paper and cardboard are not contaminated and thus have a higher value. While it costs about $3,300,000 each year to operate the Recycle Facility, in 2012 it generated about $3,900,000 in revenue just from commingled containers/materials. Ms. Kao reminded the group that this amount does fluctuate based on market demand. Additionally, she noted that the Recycle Center is a county Enterprise Operation, meaning that the revenue must cover its operations costs and there are restrictions on how the enterprise funding can be used. The bottom line is that the Recycle Center is a benefit to the county and not a tax burden to residents.
In further local recycling news, Montgomery Parks is expanding its efforts to provide recycling containers in parks and will take responsibility for collecting its own bins. Montgomery Parks is using Wheaton Regional Park as a model facility for public recycling. In addition to public recycling, for the first time, parks staff collected the collected recyclables from this spring’s park cleanups. If you have participated in any of these cleanup events, you are aware of the huge number of beer cans and soda/ water bottles collected. A lot of bottles and cans were recycled as part of these cleanups.
The city of Wheaton will not be left out of the recycling action. The Wheaton Urban District recently announced that it received a Community Legacy grant that includes funding for public recycling containers (using solar powered compactors!) in the Wheaton CBD. GreenWheaton also has funding to support new recycling containers. All of this activity around Wheaton, Silver Spring and Montgomery County as a whole should create a much more effective, efficient and comprehensive structure for public recycling. The expectation is that public recycling will become the norm instead of the exception. We will walk down cleaner streets, enjoy cleaner parks, and have the proper places to leave our recyclables when we are out in our towns.
How do you support these efforts? Take a tour of the Montgomery County Recycling Center which is open every weekday from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, except holidays, although the facility does not usually operate on Fridays. Encourage your local businesses to sponsor the recycling bins: request that Ms. Kao’s Recycle Staff at the Department of Environmental Protection come out to do onsite recycling education; and buy goods with a high recycled content to keep the market demand strong.