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Proposed Solid Waste Plan Includes New Building, Paid Garbage Collection, Reveals Single-Stream A Disappointment

by P.D. Lesko

Bernie Madoff sold a “sure thing.” He went to prison for life. Single-stream recycling was sold as a “sure thing” by Ann Arbor city staffers, politicos and their cronies. It would double collections and save taxpayers millions. Since its launch in July of 2010, it has, in fact, done neither. According to a draft five-year solid waste plan released on January 7, 2013 by city officials, a plan cooked up by the same city staffers who brought us the multi-million dollar boondoggle that is single-stream recycling, the number of tonnes of material sent to the landfill after the city’s switch to single-stream recycling has risen significantly. Single-family diversion rates remain stalled at 50 percent, where they were in 2006, when residents paid just half of what they pay now for solid waste service.

The draft plan reveals the failure of single-stream to meet any of its goals, yet lays out a plan to increase spending. The draft plan also suggests that taxpayers pay “as they throw”—pay for garbage collection and, yes, spend more millions to relocate and build a new drop-off station. The plan, in short, proposes providing fewer services for significantly more money.

Between 2010 and 2012, Berkeley, California, Walpole, Massachusetts, Auburn, Maine, and Concord, New Hampshire, among other U.S. cities have voted against moving to single-stream or abandoned single-stream recycling, according to a 2012 study by the Container Recycling Institute. Ottawa and Toronto both decided against single-stream recycling, as well, after factoring in environmental and financial costs. One town in England discontinued single-stream recycling and saw a 20 percent increase in landfill diversions in just two years. So why did Ann Arbor fall for the single-stream boondoggle? People trusted the “local” waste management experts and “environmentalists” who pushed it on behalf of their political friends—friends who, it turns out, were shoveling millions of dollars into the pockets of the local waste management experts and environmentalists. It’s a familiar tale of ineptitude, greed and unscrupulousness.

The story starts curbside, with a struggling Recycle Ann Arbor, a subsidiary of the Ecology Center—run by Michael Garfield. In 2008, Recycle Ann Arbor began to lose money. Between 2008 and 2011, Recycle Ann Arbor lost over $700,000 and started having problems paying its bills.

Susan V. Collins heads the Container Recycling Institute. She explains who pushes single-stream recycling and why: “Single-stream was created by the waste management sector in an effort to reduce their high collection costs.” In 2009, Recycle Ann Arbor (and Garfield) jumped on the single-stream recycling truck. Garfield sent out emails to Ecology Center members extolling “Single Stream 2.0″—refuting critics who claimed single-stream recycling was environmentally regressive, too expensive and wouldn’t deliver the promised results.

Several concerned citizens spoke against single-stream recycling at a March 2010 City Council meeting. The comments are prescient, in light of the failures of the single-stream system to deliver the promised increases in collections and savings:

One resident told Council that “…the current two-stream system is working, and that she was not aware that it was deficient. The cost savings associated with a single-stream system, she said, were offset by the need to purchase new cards, trucks, and add staff at the materials recovery facility. The current economic down time was the wrong time to undertake this system.” Another resident pointed out that, “Council…would save up to $6 million by voting no. Use the funds instead for police services and park maintenance.” Finally, one commenter responded to the idea that the time has come for single-stream recycling. He suggested that it “had come … and gone. After careful study, Berkeley, Calif. decided to retain its two-stream system. The University of Colorado had also recently concluded that the negatives associated with a single-stream system outweigh the benefits and had made a decision to stick with the two-stream system.”

All of the comments were right on the money, as it were.

On March 13, 2010 Garfield blasted out an email to Ecology Center members titled: “Take Action: Support Single Stream Recycling!” He was, in essence, lobbying for a contract to be awarded to a company under his control (Recycle Ann Arbor), but making it appear in his email that the Ecology Center simply favored single stream recycling. In his email Garfield writes:

Some of you have been recycling in Ann Arbor for almost 40 years, and after sorting one recyclable from another all this time, it might seem wrong to put it all in one cart. After all, we’ve been telling you how important it is to sort your papers separately from your containers. (Some of you may even remember when we sorted green glass from brown glass from tin cans, and so on!) Less than ten years ago, the Ecology Center opposed single-stream collection programs.

But times have changed, and new sorting technology at the materials recovery facility —what we call Single Stream 2.0—makes the extra sorting at the household unnecessary, without compromising the quality of the recyclables.

When the City Hall PR machine was rolled out in October 2009 by John Hieftje, Fourth Ward Council member Margie Teall and former Fifth Ward Council member Carsten Hohnke, the three-co-sponsors of the resolution to move the city to single-stream recycling, Ann Arbor residents were promised multiple benefits from single stream recycling including reduced program costs, less waste going to the landfill and even a “multi-million dollar economic stimulus for Ann Arbor” from the RecycleBank Rewards program. The promised savings would come from two sources:

  1. Recyclables would be collected using curb carts, which was supposed to allow the recyclables to be collected in less time.
  2. The expanded material recovery facility (MRF) would allow the private operator to process recyclables from other communities, which would increase the city’s share of revenue from sale of recyclables.

Susan Collins goes on to explain why single-stream rewards the waste management sector. “Single-stream requires capital investment for wheeled carts, automated vehicles and sorting facility.” It does not increase collections, and in fact produces low-quality recyclables that are more difficult to sell, and more frequently end up being landfilled by purchasers than recyclables produced by the multi-stream recycling systems favored in European countries such as Germany.

The same month (July 2010) Ann Arbor switched to single-stream recycling, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the results of a six-month case study conducted at UC-Boulder that looked at single-stream versus dual stream recycling. That six month study concluded, “Collection costs were not significantly decreased due to the single stream routing. Revenues from selling materials as single stream were significantly less than when they were marketed as separate grades of paper and containers.”  In fact single-stream has an end product contamination rate that is 15 percent, while dual stream’s contamination rate is just 2 percent.

When Council was asked to approve $3.4 million in spending to upgrade the city-owned materials recovery facility to single stream in November 2009, they were told it would result in a $450,000 annual increase in the city’s share of revenue from sale of recyclables. It hasn’t. The $3.4 million to upgrade the MRF was on top of $4.7 million to upgrade the MRF approved by Council in September 2004. Council approved an additional half a million in spending in July and November of 2010 bringing the total to $8.6 million. The total cost includes over $600,000 in payments to Resource Recycling Systems (see the chart, below), which were not competitively bid. RRS is owned by David Stead, who also sits on the Board of Recycle Ann Arbor, and who is a member of the city’s Environmental Commission (to see exactly how tangled the web is of the Green Industrial Complex is in Ann Arbor, check out the relationship map below). The remainder of the $8.6 million was paid to the MRF operator, FCR, without competitive bidding. The money to pay for the upgrades came from city taxes.

As the chart below shows, Ann Arbor’s 2010 move to single-stream recycling involved cronyism aplenty.

When the wheels began coming off the recycling container cart and collections came up 40 percent under projections made by David Stead’s company RRS, there was finger-pointing. Tom McMurtrie, the city staffer who oversees the management of the recycling program, who approved the estimates made by a consultant from a company owned by a member of Recycle Ann Arbor’s Board of Director’s, blamed RRS, the consulting firm. Recycle Ann Arbor’s former CEO Melinda Uerling blamed city officials whom she claimed never allowed Recycle Ann Arbor to have input concerning the wildly off-base estimates of projected increases in collections. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of perfectly good recycling carts were discarded so that the city could purchase new matching containers. They were junked in a pile that was 300 feet long by about 50 feet wide, according to a disgruntled city staffer who took photos of the approximately 45,000 perfectly useable, discarded bins.

When Recycle Ann Arbor came hand in hand for a taxpayer bailout in 2011, John Hieftje rallied behind Recycle Ann Arbor as a “local” company that needed the city’s support. There was, of course, no mention of the political favors that had been given to politicos who ran for re-election in 2010. Michael Garfield, head of the Ecology Center, the company that controls Recycle Ann Arbor, gave glowing political endorsements to Fifth Ward Council member Carsten Hohnke, as well as John Hieftje, both of whom voted to repay Garfield’s characterization of them as forward-thinking environmentalists with a multi-million dollar taxpayer bailout.

Between 2000 and 2009, while the cost of solid waste removal in Ann Arbor doubled, the number of tonnes collected by Recycle Ann Arbor stagnated, as the graph, below, from the city’s web site, clearly shows.

Compost

The new five year solid waste plan that seeks to charge for garbage collection was cooked up by city staffers Tom McMurtrie, Matt Naud and Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere. The graphs, below, come from the draft plan. The first graph shows that between 2010 and 2012 total trash sent to the landfill increased from 55,000 to 62,000 tonnes, and total recycling has stayed virtually the same, despite the expenditure of millions on single-stream and promises aplenty.

In July of 2011, when it was revealed that single-stream collections projections made by David Stead’s company RRS were off by some 40 percent. McMurtrie, attempting to lessen the sting, told AnnArbor.com, “the actual tonnage collected is still a 20 percent increase over the number of tons that were collected in the previous year with two-stream recycling.” In 2002, shortly after John Hieftje took office, city officials announced a goal of diverting 60 percent of solid waste collected from the landfill. Eleven years and almost $180,000,000 million solid waste tax dollars later, the city’s Five Year Solid Waste Plan “Waste Less” confesses, “The city’s (2002) diversion goal of 60 percent has not yet been reached, as the single-family diversion rate remains around 50 percent.” It has remained at 50 percent since 2006, with minor ups and downs.

There is one area where we have seen a dramatic increase with respect to recycling: the amount of money taxpayers spend on our solid waste millage, and the amount spent to pay Recycle Ann Arbor to haul our recyclables. That amount has skyrocked since 2004, when the City of Ann Arbor granted the non-profit a 10-year contract to haul our materials. That merit-based contract called for the City to pay Recycle Ann Arbor $766,000, according to minutes from the December 15, 2003 City Council meeting. Ann Arbor taxpayers foot the bill for the trucks, fuel, and repairs of Recycle Ann’s Arbor’s collection vehicles. Look again at the chart above at the number of tons recycled. In 2012, taxpayers purchased new trucks for Recycle Ann Arbor to use. By 2008, the cost to taxpayers to have Recycle Ann Arbor haul virtually the same number of tons of material to the MRF that the company hauled in 2003, had risen from $766,000 to a whopping $1.6 million dollars. City Council approved the payment of $1.8 million dollars to Recycle Ann Arbor for fiscal year 2010.

While Ann Arbor’s single-family diversion rate remains stalled at 50 percent, cities large and small have moved well past that (now modest) goal. In 2011, Seattle’s diversion rate for single-family homes topped 70 percent. In Boulder, the single-family diversion rate is 60 percent. San Francisco diverts 80 percent of all of its waste from its landfills. To be fair, a diversion rate above 40 percent is laudable. However, the drop in total diversion to 30 percent puts Ann Arbor at the bottom of the recycling food chain. Knoxville, Tennessee has a total diversion rate of 67 percent, and cities in the south don’t push recycling nearly as aggressively as cities in the Greal Lakes region. To rub salt in some wound somewhere, Ohio State University reports that its football stadium, a venue that seats 105,000, people diverts 98 percent of the waste produced from local landfills.

According to a 2012 report produced by the University of Michigan, “in 2009, total university waste was 17,355 tons, an overall addition of nearly 4,000 tons from the 13,833 reported for the 2004 fiscal year representing an absolute growth rate of 25.46 percent.” Officials there have suggested the goal of increasing the university’s diversion rate to 55 percent by 2020. It’s probably no coincidence that Harvard already has the highest recycling rate in the Ivies, diverting 55 percent of the waste the university produces from local landfills. Ann Arbor’s draft five year plan proposes strategies to increase the city’s overall diversion rate from 31 percent at the present to 40 percent by 2017. However, there’s a catch: This five year plan to build a new recovery facility and then charge even more for solid waste services is being “sold” by the some of the same hucksters who promised us single-stream was a “sure thing.”

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, call me an Ann Arbor taxpayer. 

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8 Comments for “Proposed Solid Waste Plan Includes New Building, Paid Garbage Collection, Reveals Single-Stream A Disappointment”

  1. [...] much could be said about P.D. Lesko’s 2011 and 2013 articles about Recycle Ann Arbor, much could be said about the figures used in [...]

  2. [...] in the state. What is surprising to many is that the city’s 40-year-old recycling program is embroiled in controversy and allegations of financial misdeeds, as uncovered by A2Politico, an independent investigative [...]

  3. Perfect timing for an obsessive article on the topic and how timely…..but whoa whoa whoa! Chill, those bottles are worth something to everybody. I do prefer 2 streams.

  4. Oops…that should read hopping *mad* LOL.

  5. Single stream recycling is like candy, it looks good and it’s too tempting to resist. In the end however it’s going to rot your teeth. I was disappointed when we switched over in 2010 and after reading this I am hopping made. They want a new building? We should pay for garbage collection? Good grief Ann Arbor what will it take before voters rise up and throw all of these charlatans out of office? I voted against the millages, and will vote against any candidate for City Council who tries to tell me that charging for garbage collection will increase recycling. It would be a tax increase. For heaven’s sake people will just do what they do now – throw everything into the recycling container.

    • @Jane you hit the nail right on the head. Slapping on fees for services is a tax increase. The Solid Waste Dept. doesn’t need anymore money. In fact, the dept. has a surplus each year that they hide away until just the right outlandish idea (switch to single-stream!) or project (let’s build a new recovery facility!) pops up. That money could and IMHO should be returned to taxpayers. Then again, I am also of the opinion that Tom McMurtrie should have been fired for his part in the single-stream debacle. Instead, he was allowed to point fingers. The City Administrator needs to get a spine and hold his staff accountable.

  6. I think using tonnage gives an inflated value to the recycling program. Most of the materials I recycle, measured by weight are glass. I do not buy many products in metal cans and glass is much heavier than plastic.

    I suspect all of the glass is considered to be recycled, but none is in the sense of being reused in a product. It is sorted, cleaned, crushed, and then sent to the Westland landfill. There it may be used for road beds or drainage but the city does receive any payment.

    I think this is what most people would consider recycling, yet it is a large percentage of the AA program by weight.

    • @Glenn, our city contributes less than 20 percent of the materials processed at our recovery facility. We are subsidizing recycling for other communities, and have paid tens of millions to create a large program where one wasn’t needed. Expanding recycling keeps RAA in business and Tom McMutrie as one of the highest paid Ann Arbor city staffers. It does not, however, benefit our community ecologically or financially. The mantra is REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. In Ann Arbor, it’s RECYCLE, REYCLE SOME MORE, EXPAND RECYCLING. What if we plowed $8M into more reuse centers, and partnered with U of M to reduce its waste (17,500 tons, 1.5 times the total amount Ann Arbor recycled)? U of M, however, is setting up its own parallel recycling system, I think.

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