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Recycling rate schizophrenia

By rgordon
Thursday, April 19th, 2007 at 10:31 am in Uncategorized.

On Wednesday, the Insider received a reader-friendly two-page update from the South Bayside Waste Management Authority trumpeting its achievements in recycling last year.

(The authority oversees trash removal and recycling for 10 Peninsula cities, unincorporated San Mateo County and the West Bay Sanitary District. The authority holds a $50 million annual contract with Allied Waste to provide the service.)

RecyclingAccording to the authority’s 2006 Recycling and Waste Reduction Annual Update, “residents and businesses recycled about 11 million pounds more material in 2006 than 2005, a 3% increase.” Since 1997, that represents a 20 percent reduction in materials sent to the landfill.

Eighteen thousand tons of food scraps and other compostable material from more than 460 restaurants and hotels were collected this year, representing a 60 percent increase for the authority’s Commercial Organics Program. There was a 67 percent improvement in keeping truckloads of construction and demolition debris from the landfill as well, diverting them to be recycled in San Jose at the Zanker Material Processing Facility.

Sounds great, right?

Not so fast.

Wasn’t there just a performance hearing for Allied last week, which we wrote about, and during which the trash hauler was lambasted for recycling rates that are on the decline? And for not meeting its goal for commercial recycling rates for the fifth year in a row?

Indeed, we wrote:

“In 2006, Allied recycled just 24 percent of commercial waste. Residential recycling has also remained below 50 percent.

Overall recycling tonnage decreased 12 percent between 2005 and 2006 — from more than 31,000 tons to less than 28,000 tons — a decline for the third straight year.”

Hmm. Things not so glossy as they appear? A wee bit of spin, per chance?

Kevin McCarthy, the authority’s executive director, said it’s a matter of what you’re looking at. While those individual pieces of the puzzle do lag, he said, the boom in construction debris and organics recycling is so great that the net result is a three percent increase.

So, then, is this specialized program increase canceling out an alarming decline in the basics – recycling bottles and paper at home or the office?

“Effectively, it is,” McCarthy said. “The challenge remains, we still have a substandard residential recycling program and we have a lot of work to do with commercial recycling.”

“We think we have a good plan, but the jury’s still out,” McCarthy added.

The update does note that more than 400,000 tons of waste is still sent to the landfill at Ox Mountain, “enough to fill 20 football stadiums annually and generate 17,000 truck trips.”

McCarthy said that improving rates for those recycling fundamentals is easier said than done, as it would require a long-term plan involving significant amendments to Allied’s contract. The contract expires at the end of 2010, and the authority has made no bones about the fact that it plans to seek bids for a new contract from other vendors.

McCarthy said the contract with a potential new vendor will include a total overhaul of recycling requirements. For now, he said, the authority’s approach is mostly focused on “what other programs can we do in the interim, before 2010.”

And that means getting really good and recycling those odds and ends.

The authority also recycled 2,000 mattresses and 407 tons of electronic scrap in 2006. A cell phone and battery recycling program, which launched with a pilot in San Carlos in March and collected 800 pounds in just a month, could be expanded to all cities by the end of the year. A handful of e-waste recycling events are scheduled for this summer, and a carpet recycling program is also in the works.

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