About once a month, I load up my bicycle cargo trailer with an assortment of gallon jugs – plastic and glass – plus a mountain of rigid Styrofoam, then pedal off to Recycle Ann Arbor’s drop off station at the corner of Platt and Ellsworth.
When I drop my load of recyclables there, I’m not wearing my Ann Arbor Chronicle editor’s hat. Rather, I’m working as the sole-proprietor of a (very) small bicycle-based business called HD Hauling and Delivery.
I bring this up mostly to establish some sort of credibility as a friend of the environment.
That way when I reveal what I’ve been thinking about recently, there might be a brief hesitation before readers reach into their recycling totes, retrieve a well-rinsed artisanally-crafted mayonnaise jar, and chuck it at my noggin. Not that it will do those readers any good – I generally wear my bicycle helmet, even when I’m just typing.
Now, when I say I’ve been “thinking about” the idea of turning Huron Hills Golf Course into a landfill, I’m not saying that I advocate creating a landfill there. I’m not even saying that it’s a good idea to research the question. I’m just saying that the idea crossed my mind, okay? Why?
It’s because of a recent decision by Recycle Ann Arbor to charge a $3 entry fee for their drop off station, starting Jan. 2, 2010. How do you whack a rhetorical ball all the way from that $3 fee to a landfill at Huron Hills Golf Course? Believe me, you need a lot of club. Fore!
Why a Fee and Who Pays?
The sign posted at the drop off facility gatehouse indicates that the $3 charge is “per vehicle.” In any other context, I’d want to contend that my bicycle plus cargo trailer is a vehicle – as such, it’s entitled to its place on roadways, alongside automobiles. Here, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be lumped in with cars and trucks – if it would save me $3.
So when I rolled up to the gatehouse on Tuesday this week, I asked one of the two people working the gatehouse what would happen after the first of the year: Would I be charged the entry fee?
The guy asked for clarification: “You’re asking if I’m going to charge you for bringing that stuff here on your bicycle?” His answer was no. On account of the much smaller carbon footprint of a bicycle, he said.
Okay, but what if I get a different guy at the gatehouse?
That’s when the guy revealed who he was: Steve Sheldon, operations manager for Recycle Ann Arbor. He’d be setting that policy, he said, by defining what a vehicle is. The idea of not charging the entry fee for bicycles, Sheldon told me, was consistent with Boulder, Colorado’s CHaRM (Center for Hard-to-Recycle-Materials) policy, which he was looking to as a model.
Although the new $3 fee at Recycle Ann Arbor is identical to the CHaRM entry fee, the price point, Sheldon said, was determined by how much revenue would need to be generated to cover a $100,000 drop in municipal funding. Sheldon said that when Boulder implemented their fee, there was a reduction in visits to the center. And he figured that Ann Arbor would experience a somewhat greater drop given the worse economy in Michigan as compared to Colorado.
By my back-of-the-napkin arithmetic, to get to $100,000, the drop off station will need to average a little more than 130 entries each day it’s open – the winter schedule is Tuesday-Saturday. On Tuesday of this week, there was a line of cars filled with folks who apparently wanted to get their stuff dropped off before the fee was imposed.
Sheldon clarified that the entry fee is added on top of any item-specific fees that might apply. For example, a computer monitor costs $15 to drop off – with the entry fee, that will now cost $18.
There are some discounts available for frequent flyers, though. A 10-visit punch card will be available for $25 – that’s a $5 savings. And a yearly pass will cost $75. Holders of the yearly pass will also receive a 5% discount on trash disposal at the drop off station. Sheldon said he’s already had interest expressed by several people about the yearly pass.
People who come to the drop off station to purchase compost will not be charged the entry fee.
What Does a Fee Say?
The fact that it’s necessary for Recycle Ann Arbor to apply an entry fee for the drop off station says something about the economic viability of recycling per se. It says that the activity of recycling – for many materials – still requires a subsidy.
Besides the drop in municipal funding, the other reason cited by Recycle Ann Arbor’s CEO Melinda Uerling in the press release explaining the entry fee is “the dramatic decline in market value for recyclable materials.”
In our chat by the gatehouse, Sheldon recalled the heady days when they commanded $600/ton for paper. That’s dropped to $60/ton. Sheldon allowed that plastic and glass actually cost money to have removed from the station. Some of my load is plastic and glass, but most of it is Styrofoam.
Just as an aside, the variable market for recyclable material is one reason for the wide range of years for estimated return on investment for the remodeling of the materials recovery center (MRF) – from 4.3 to 7.8 years, depending on the market. That project will be undertaken in connection with the city’s single-stream curbside recycling initiative, which is set to begin next summer. The city council approved purchase of the new carts at its Dec. 21, 2009 meeting.
Here it’s worth drawing the distinction between the drop off station, which is operated by Recycle Ann Arbor, versus the MRF, which is operated by Resource Recycling Systems FCR. Recycle Ann Arbor contracts with the city to collect curbside recycling, which it delivers to the MRF.
Back to my typical load. Styrofoam is not accepted in the current curbside program – and won’t be in the new single stream system, either – because it sticks to everything else via static charges.
So what about the rigid Styrofoam that I bring to the drop off station? There’s no fee for the Styrofoam – was I costing the drop off center money by dropping off the Styrofoam there? Nope. That’s a material they get paid for, Sheldon told me.
It Ain’t Peanuts
The rigid Styrofoam – along with glass and plastic gallon jugs – is part of a load I haul for Kaiser Optical, located out west of town on Jackson Road. I connected with them through Washenaw County’s Waste Knot program.
Their recycling materials stream also includes prodigious amounts of packing peanuts. The drop off station will accept packing peanuts – but it basically works as a clearinghouse. That is, they count on people who want the packing peanuts to come scarf them up.
Rather than use the drop off station as a middle man, I funnel the peanuts straight to people who can use them: Carol Kamm’s iSoldIt, which sells items through online auctions on consignment; The Mail Shoppe, which provides shipping and mailing services, on Division Street across from the Kempf House.
And that, it seems to me, is the direction that we need to head with more of the materials we use. It’s not a novel insight. It’s the second “R” from the now cliché “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
But that’s a mantra really designed for consumers – it tells us how to deal with the crap we wind up with. There’s nothing explicit in that formula that says to the producer of goods: Make stuff that puts zero material into that 3-R stream.
Yet there are some producers who do that anyway. One of them lives here in Ann Arbor – Jeremy Lopatin, who operates ArborTeas – he imports and packages organic tea, and sells it online. I know Jeremy through HD Hauling and Delivery. The tea purchased by his online customers makes its way to the post office and UPS drop off on my bicycle trailer.
Jeremy is already using a custom-designed, eco-friendly, cardboard container, but will soon introduce the gold standard in packaging – a “backyard compostable” material. It’s also perfectly air-tight, which means greater shelf stability.
You can bury the new packaging in your backyard, and know that it will actually degrade without posing hazards to animal and vegetable life.
Golf Courses as Landfills?
That $3 entry fee for the drop off station suggests to me that burying all our trash would be at least as economical and more energy-efficient than our current path of maintaining two separate waste-collection operations – one for the landfill and one for recycling.
So why do we not just bury all our trash? Why are we even bothering with this huge effort to recycle?
Part of it has to do with the fact that we don’t really trust that landfills are truly safe – despite the layers of clay and plastic liners that are required to meet modern standards. But part of it, I think, has to do with the idea that we hate being “wasteful.” We’ve convinced ourselves that burying trash in a big vault is wasteful. Maybe it’s even true that it is wasteful.
But the alternative – recycling materials – is currently not across-the-board any less wasteful. If it were across-the-board less wasteful, it wouldn’t require subsidy.
However, our recycling activity at least confronts us with the stuff that we’d like to get rid of, and that confrontation could cause someone to innovate a way to eliminate whole categories of items from that set. Ann Arbor’s upcoming move to single-stream recycling will shift that confrontation a bit from individual households to the people at the MRF who sift through the stuff (aided with automated equipment), but a confrontation will remain.
The part that can’t be recycled, though, gets buried – currently at Woodland Meadows in Wayne, Michigan. But here’s why it’s functionally (if not politically) plausible and useful to think of dumping it at Huron Hills Golf Course instead.
Huron Hills Golf Course requires a substantial general fund subsidy – whether it’s operated as a golf course or just maintained minimally to standard to ensure public safety. As the city faces tough budget decisions, one possibility is to think outside the recycled cardboard box. So there’s a functional plausibility to this kind of scenario.
But you don’t need to read tea leaves to know that Ann Arbor is not actually going to turn Huron Hills Golf Course into a landfill. The state of Michigan is unlikely to authorize construction of a municipal landfill, and there’d be no appetite to engage in that losing local political battle.
Now would be a good time to note that I have not spoken to any city councilmembers or city officials about the idea of turning Huron Hills Golf Course into a landfill. And I have not heard of any plan to do so. I also do not suspect, even a tiny bit, that there is a secret plan to do so.
The vision I’d like to conjure, though, for Ann Arborites who wheel their blue trash bins out for collection, is this: After the operator has used the automatic arm to empty the trash into the truck’s belly, he heads to the eighteenth hole of Huron Hills, where Stew Nelson is lining up a putt, and disgorges all that trash right there on the green.
It doesn’t matter how much you recycled, the rest of the trash is going to keep Stew from finishing his round.
If we don’t think of that trash landing on the 18th green of Huron Hill’s Golf Course, we’re going to keep thinking it’s heading off to someplace innocuous, and we’re going to forgive ourselves for that trash, because we did such a great job recycling all that other stuff. But that $3 entry fee is a reminder that recycling all that other stuff isn’t something to be all that proud about, either, because it’s not as economical as just burying it at a landfill.
So I see the Huron-Hills-as-landfill scenario, plus that $3 entry fee for the drop off station, as useful tools to focus on community measures of how well we’re doing in this whole trash plus recycling equation. Those measures can be found in the city of Ann Arbor environmental commission’s Responsible Resource Use environmental indicator, which is a part of the commission’s State of the Environment report.
One key indicator: total waste per capita – the sum of recycling plus trash per person. We’re at around 1,000 pounds per person per year, which stacks up pretty well against the national average of around 1,700 pounds.
Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, will be focusing in far more detail on those indicators in the next installment of a series of articles, written for The Chronicle, on environmental indicators. In that treatment, which will appear in the next week or so, Matt is guaranteed not to indulge in images of golf courses as landfills.
Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, does not golf.