Column: Recycling Virtues and MORE

A sales pitch for single-stream recycling

The city of Ann Arbor made a recent decision to convert to a single-stream curbside recycling system, plus implement an incentive coupon reward system to encourage people to participate in the program.

apple and orange

Orange (left) and apple (right). The orange is larger than the apple. Its skin is bumpy in contrast to the apple's smooth covering. Also, the apple has a stem. (Photo by the writer.)

The decision came under some criticism for its initial capital costs, the possible reduction in quality of the resulting recycled material, as well as for its emphasis on coupon rewards for recycling more – which some people feared could feed back into a loop causing more consumption.

I think there are fair questions that can be asked about cost and quality.  What I missed, however, was a convincing sales pitch – one that included options within the basic idea of a single-stream system with an incentive program. In this column, I take a look at what I’d have found to be a more convincing sales pitch.

First, it’s a sales pitch that could have been more about choices than it was. Choices are a fairly strong value in American culture. It’s a strong enough value that a draft report on parking currently being written by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority includes the assertion that everything in Western culture is about choice. The claim generated some dissenting views at last Wednesday morning’s meeting of the DDA’s transportation committee, but also found strong support.

We begin, though, with another powerful idea in American culture: More is better.

The Psychology of More is Better

The city’s case for single-stream recycling was based largely on the potential for increasing a key statistic: pounds-per-household of recycled material. [That's an argument that feeds into the financial case for the switch to the new system.]

Ann Arbor’s pounds-per-household number stands at 357 pounds of recycled material, compared with something like 600 and 800 pounds in Rochester Hills and Westland, respectively. Both of those cities have implemented single stream-recycling systems with coupon reward programs.

But some folks probably wondered why that statistic was considered so key to the city’s case. Those are the folks who are sometimes labeled the “left flank” of Ann Arbor’s predominantly Democratic political landscape.

After all, that pounds-per-household number for recycling is not included as a key measure in the city’s State of the Environment resource use indicators. Instead, what’s tracked are per capita numbers for landfilled waste. That’s a number that we’d like to see get smaller. Because that’s what recycling is all about, right? It’s about reducing the amount of landfilled waste.

So why were city staff talking about a statistic that they wanted make larger?

It’s actually solidly based on the way we’re programmed as human beings. We respond to the idea of “more is better” in a way that is more powerful than “less is better.” Runners who are trying to lower their times for the 5K will inevitably talk about how many more miles they’ll run in training. Food Gatherers, a local nonprofit trying to reduce the number of people who are hungry, will focus about how many more pounds of food they’ve been able to recover this year than last year.

Put another way, offense is easier to cheer for than defense. When the University of Michigan hockey team scores a goal at Yost Area, the chant goes “We want more goals!” … along with “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault,” directed at the opposing team’s goalie. And that seems to be a fairly generic chant for hockey fans everywhere. There doesn’t seems to be generic chant for an incredible save.

On the subject of more-is-less in the environmental movement, in a blog post from three years ago, Seth Godin wrote:

As a marketer, my best advice is this: let’s figure out how to turn this into a battle to do more, not less. Example one: require all new cars to have, right next to the speedometer, a mileage [mpg] meter. And put the same number on an LCD display on the rear bumper. Once there’s an arms race to see who can have the highest number, we’re on the right track.

It’s worth pointing out that Seth Godin is a marketer of more than modest ability. He visited Ann Arbor a few years ago and made a presentation at Michigan Theater. As a result of that presentation, I now own three copies of Godin’s book, “The Dip.” That’s three out of five copies that I originally purchased as a part of admission to the presentation. If I were a better consumer, I would have passed along all five copies to other people as Godin intended, instead of just two of them. But Godin was able to log five more in his “number of books sold” column. Faced with a choice between calling myself an idiot or calling Seth Godin a genius, I’m going with Seth as marketing genius. [No, we're not taking a poll on those choices.]

So using pounds-per-household of recycling is arguably a good marketing strategy to increase recycling performance in Ann Arbor. It taps the powerful “more is better” psychology that makes us tick as human beings. And the city alluded to this idea of competition and group participation as part of the reason it would be effective. But the focus of the sales pitch was the rewards program to be administered by RecycleBank, not the psychology of “more is better.”

Numbers as Their Own Reward

If we focus on the “more is better” psychology, this is a fair question to ask: How much extra recycling behavior do you get just from keeping track, plus the “more is better” psychology? That’s a different question from the one that was actually given some discussion: How much extra recycling behavior is due just to having a larger bin with no requirement of sorting?

An alternative not presented to the city council was this: Bring just the motivational meter to the surface, without coupon rewards, by providing residents with information about how much they’re recycling per household – via the city’s website, for example. Instead, the motivational meter was  linked to the RecycleBank coupon reward system.

Given the size of the 10-year contract with RecycleBank – $2 million over the course of the contract – it’s fair to ask: What is the recycling performance differential between an incentive program based purely on providing numerical feedback to residents, versus one based on providing feedback in the form of coupons? One could imagine the pure numerical feedback approach spurring good-natured competition between people on different recycling routes, or perhaps a mechanism for settling ancient neighborhood grudges. And out of that could come greater recycling performance.

As described by the RecycleBank sales representative at the council’s March 15, 2010 meeting, a large part of what the RecycleBank contract pays for is their efforts to establish partnerships with vendors to provide coupons and to educate residents about the point system and relating it to coupons.

Why isn’t it an option to eschew the coupon program and just focus on keeping numerical track as a feedback loop – and leave RecycleBank out of the picture? It’s partly because RecycleBank equipment is a key part of the technology for keeping track. That equipment includes RFID readers mounted on the trucks – which capture participation information from the RFID tags on every curbside cart – plus the computer installed at the materials recovery center (MRF), for capturing weight data.

This equipment is what’s covered by the escape clause in the RecycleBank contract – it’ll cost the city $150,000 if it decides not to fund the program – the price of RecycleBank’s equipment.

According to RecycleBank spokesperson Melody Serafino, who spoke to The Chronicle by phone, that equipment consists of proprietary hardware and software.

So we’re outsourcing two distinct activities: (i) a proprietary technology installation for keeping track numerically of participation and truck weights, and (ii) a coupon incentive program that ties into a coupon rewards program and merchant partnership program.

Can a city choose to implement just the numerical keeping-track part? Serafino explained that RecycleBank wouldn’t necessarily completely reject the idea forever if a city were to ask for just that module, but stressed that RecycleBank was a rewards and relationships company. Their national partners would like to be a part of the relationship in every RecycleBank community, she explained. What they’re offering, she said, was a way to establish loyalty between residents and  geographically local bricks-and-mortar establishments where residents could, for example, enjoy a $5 discount on some item they’d be purchasing anyway. That would held keep local dollars local, she said.

What I wanted to see in the sales pitch to the city council and to the community was the choice to start off just with keeping track numerically of recycling performance. It would be interesting and potentially valuable to measure the effect on recycling performance when enhanced by just a numerical means of keeping track – with no coupon rewards.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting just converting to a single-stream collection system and stopping there. The idea is that we’d ask RecycleBank for just the counting system, with household data piped straight to the city website where it could be looked up by residents. It would be similar to the system already in place for tracking city water usage. [To view a daily graph of your water usage, get a copy of your water bill so that you can type in your account number, and start with the My Property page of the city's website.]

Keeping a numerical track of recycling performance is not the business RecycleBank is in. They’re in the rewards and relationship business. So keeping numerical track is simply a tool in service of those rewards and relationships. But it seems to me that RecycleBank might discover that the idea of keeping numerical track is a lucrative business, too – maybe more lucrative than rewards and relationships.

If  comparable recycling performance can be achieved just by providing people with numerical feedback on their recycling, RecycleBank could shed all their staff whose function is to establish retail partner relationships, and focus exclusively on hardware and software installations. The benefit to a city would be roughly the same, so a city would presumably be willing to pay roughly the current price. That’d be a win for RecycleBank – although they might need to contemplate a name change.

On the other hand, if RecycleBank can show that numerical feedback alone has a far lesser effect on improving recycling performance than a coupon rewards built on top of the numbers, that would also be a win for RecycleBank. They’d be able to prove: You need our people, not just our technology.

The Sales Pitch I Wanted: In converting to single-stream, we’re going to tap the “more is better” psychology. We can choose to do that in three different ways: (i) provide numerical feedback only, (ii) provide numerical feedback in the form of coupon rewards, and (iii) start with numerical feedback and add coupon rewards later if performance doesn’t meet projections. Which would we like to pursue as a community?

Activities versus Outcomes

The city’s sales pitch to the public for this more-is-better marketing strategy also missed a key point: What’s the evidence that other communities’ bigger numbers for curbside recycling translates into smaller numbers of landfilled waste in those communities?

Consider the analogous question for Godin’s scenario, where every car has a real-time miles-per-gallon indicator on the dashboard and the bumper – call it a Godin Gauge. Let’s imagine every car is equipped with a Godin Gauge, and that people standing around the water cooler brag back and forth about their mileage numbers and drivers’ miles-per-gallon nationwide gets measurably higher. Success? Well, no.

The metric for success, presumably, is still total fuel consumed per capita. And that number might still be going up, despite the Godin Gauge – if people are driving farther than ever … because they feel less guilty about driving at all … because their Godin Gauge tells them they’re getting a whopping 75 mpg.

Or consider the city of Ann Arbor’s efforts to increase bicycle lane mileage. It’s a number we can try to increase, but if our per capita vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) keeps increasing – and it does, according to the city’s State of the Environment Report – then we cannot claim success.

It’s the difference between measuring the activities we do, and measuring the impact of those activities. At the last Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting, board member Sue McCormick, who’s also public services area administrator for the city, nailed this point, when she objected that the goals and objectives for AATA’s CEO were too focused on activities and not enough on outcomes.

Monitoring our Godin Gauges is an activity. Installing bike lanes is an activity. In recycling, the pounds-per-household number is the measurement of an activity. But the outcome we should measure is landfilled waste. Measuring the activity is important, because it’s part of marketing recycling as more-is-better. However, among elected officials with the responsibility for overseeing the $6 million capital investment in single-stream recycling, the focus on the outcome of less landfilled waste was not front and center.

Back to the question that bears on outcomes: What’s the evidence that other communities’ bigger numbers for curbside recycling translates into smaller numbers of landfilled waste in those communities?

In the many months of lead time to the final vote on the single-stream incentive program, I didn’t see any member of the Ann Arbor city council insist on getting an answer to that fundamental, obvious data question. That’s a group that includes two Ph.D scientists in Carsten Hohnke and Stephen Rapundalo.

The day after the city council made the final votes to implement the single-stream plus incentive, The Chronicle posed that question to city staff in the following form:

When comparing Rochester Hills to Ann Arbor, the 600 pounds versus 357 pounds is part of the story. The other part of the story is the X pounds per household that Rochester Hills throws into the landfill, versus the Y pounds per household that Ann Arbor throws in the landfill.

Our question, currently being handled by city staff, is this: What are X and Y?

Total Waste and Apples-to-Oranges

The city, via its consultant, was eventually able to track down some information related to the question – we now have some numbers for Westland, but not Rochester Hills. [Sometimes you go to press with the numbers you have, not the numbers you wished you had.]

Recall that in round numbers Westland generates 443 (800 minus 357) additional recycling pounds-per-household. The total waste comparison between Westland and Ann Arbor looks like this:

3,117 lbs/household/year total waste (including yard waste)
1,277 lbs per capita waste (2.44 people per household)

Ann Arbor
2,590 lbs/household/year total waste (including yard waste)
1,162 lbs per capita waste (2.23 people per household)


Interpreting these numbers is an exercise in keeping the proverbial apples and oranges straight.

Comparing the total-waste-per-household numbers, Westland generates 527 pounds-per-household more total waste than Ann Arbor. Maybe that 527 pounds of total extra waste allows them to achieve more than Ann Arbor in recycling pounds per household? Probably not.

The fact that yard waste is included in the figure clouds the picture – what we really care about is recycled versus landfilled waste, and yard waste is not landfilled. Another apples-to-oranges factor: Westland’s numbers include pickup of “bulky” waste – like old sofas. Ann Arbor’s numbers don’t.

More importantly, comparing the per household numbers presupposes that household size in Westland and Ann Arbor is the same. It’s not. Ann Arbor’s smaller household size means that you’d expect a somewhat smaller total waste number, all other things being equal.

So comparing the per capita waste figures reduces the gap between Westland and Ann Arbor to 115 pounds [1,277 minus 1,162]. Percentage-wise, then, the average Westland household generates 20% more total waste [527 divided by 2,590], but the average individual Westlander generates only 10% more total waste [115 divided by 1,162].

So compared to the average Ann Arborite, the average Westlander has 115 pounds more trash, recycling, and yard waste removed from their curb every year.

The case for single-stream plus coupon rewards, however, was based on per household recycling numbers: 357 pounds per household compared to 800 pounds per household for Westland. Converting those numbers to per capita figures yields: 357 divided by 2.23 = 160 pounds recycling per capita for Ann Arbor; 800 divided by 2.44 = 328 pounds of recycling per capita for Westland.

So the average Westlander recycles 168 more pounds of material than the average Ann Arborite does.

Comparing the Westlander’s waste pile with the Ann Arborite’s, we know that it’s 115 pounds heavier, but the part of it that’s made of recycled material is 168 pounds heavier. So even if all the additional weight in the Westlander’s waste pile is due to recycled material – and we subtract that from the Westlander’s recycling efforts – we’d have equal-weight waste piles, but the Westlander’s pile would have 53 more pounds of recycling in it.

That’s a long story to have to tell to arrive at the conclusion that the single-stream plus coupon incentive program in Westland will improve recycling performance in Ann Arbor and thereby reduce landfilled waste.

The tale would be simpler if we had the X and Y numbers from the question we posed. It would also be simpler if the city had relied on per capita numbers, not per household numbers.

It’s important to acknowledge that apples-to-apples comparisons against other communities are not easy when it comes to solid waste. But when all that’s possible is an apple-to-orange comparison, then we need to acknowledge that.

It’s also important to recognize that the “more is better” psychology that will likely fuel the success of Ann Arbor’s new single-stream program should not be the metric of success. Success should continue to be measured as the city’s State of the Environment Report does it: per capita total waste and percentage diverted from the landfill.

The Sales Pitch I Wanted: We’re going to tap the psychology of “more is better” as a marketing tool, but we’re still going to measure success by per capita landfilled waste. Our per capita landfilled waste right now is X. We expect it to be Y after five years.

The Psychology of Harder is Better

Part of the city’s sales pitch for single-stream was based on ease and convenience – residents will no longer need to sort their recycled materials into two separate containers, and they’ll have a convenience cart with wheels, instead of two totes that have to be lifted manually. The carts won’t be an improvement for everyone – there are surely people who can manage the totes one at a time with a limited amount of material, but who will not physically be able to wrassle the carts over bumpy terrain.

But on average, wheeling a single cart out to the curb, where it will stand proudly at attention next to its blue brother – the trash cart – will make recycling in Ann Arbor easier than before. Not to mention the fact that the comparable size of the recycling cart will now convey a better message than the comparatively tiny totes: Your volume of recycled material should rival your volume of landfilled trash.

I think it would be more effective, however, to talk about how the carts will make life in Ann Arbor easier, rather than how they’ll make recycling easier.

Here’s why. Our basic idea of what makes recycling important has something to do with the fact that we think it’s virtuous. There’s an orthodoxy associated with it. It’s a good thing to do and doing it makes you virtuous. Virtue shouldn’t come easy. Virtue should be at least a little bit hard.

The idea that the things worth doing are those things that are difficult is something baked into our culture. It’s not an accident that John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, talked about the reasons for choosing to go to the moon and to take on other challenges this way:

… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Granted, single-stream recycling is a bit remote from traveling to the moon.

However, at least for some of us, part of the reason we engage in an “environmentally friendly” lifestyle choice is precisely because it’s difficult, and we derive some sense of virtue from it. For example, I get around mostly by bicycle, even in the wintertime. There are myriad benefits related to my work here at The Chronicle – I never have to hunt for parking when I attend an event, and when I see sources walking down the street, I can just pull right up and chat.

But mostly the bike is about the fact that it’s hard enough that most people don’t use one for transportation. If it were easy, and half the population rode a bike, I’d probably be far less enthusiastic about it. As it is, though, part of the self-motivating story I can tell myself is that I’ve got a little extra in my pile of virtue, on account of my bicycle riding.

So when we tell old-school “left flank” recyclers that recycling will be easier, part of what they might be hearing is, “You’ll no longer be doing something that has virtue.” Or worse, “That virtuous activity you previously took so seriously, wasn’t really necessary.”

That’s why a “life will be easier” message is, I think, likely to be more effective. Even those of us who believe that certain things should be hard, will find it tough to argue that that life in general should be hard.

The Sales Pitch I Wanted: Life in Ann Arbor will be easier once we convert to single-stream recycling.

The Finances of Easier is Better

Part of that “life will be easier” message, however, needs to include some discussion of financial ease. Included in the council and staff discussion was the projected payback period for the investment in the single-stream infrastructure – carts, trucks, and improvements to the materials recovery facility (MRF). That period is projected to be around 6.75 years in an average market for recycled materials.

After that period the system will presumably continue to show the same efficiencies – compared to the current two-stream system – that allow for the payback on the investment. At the point that the investment is paid off, then, here’s a fair question: Do the increased efficiencies from the implementation of the single-stream system warrant a reduction in the city’s solid waste millage?

The city’s solid waste millage, which is levied at a rate of 2.467 mill, generates roughly $11 million a year. That millage, which appears as “City Refuse” on property tax bills, is enabled by state statute. Under that statute, a city council can enact a tax up to 3 mill in order to fund a garbage collection system.

The capital used to fund the single-stream investment came from laying aside money from this millage as a cash reserve. The October 2009 presentation to the city council put the solid waste enterprise fund at around $9 million.

So what was the capital investment to be paid back?

The October 2009 city council working session presentation gave a payback analysis for the MRF upgrade at $3,500,000  [authorized by the city council at its Nov. 15, 2009 meeting] and cart purchases at $1,281,600 [authorized by the city council at its Dec. 21, 2009 meeting].

The purchase of four additional trucks at a price of $1.2 million was authorized at the council’s Dec. 21, 2009 meeting, but was not included in the October 2009 payback analysis.

Starting in FY 2011, the payback analysis shows net returns to the solid waste fund balance of $625,000, $976,000, $1,046,000, and $796,000 for an average of $860,000 per year. The variation is due to the variability in the market for recycled material.

But taking $860,000 as an average annual savings compared to the two-stream system, we should be able to rely on that savings to persist even after the capital investment is paid back. The $860,000 savings translates into .19 mill in tax. Based on the payback analysis, then, it seems reasonable to make a tax decrease a part of the sales pitch. That’s a tax decrease that should be expected independently of the city’s possible exploration next year of a privatization option for garbage collection, which would be accompanied by a reduction in the solid waste millage.

The Sales Pitch I Wanted: In around six years, life in Ann Arbor will get a little easier due to single-stream recycling, because your taxes will go down … a little.

Cart Coda

Our two-stream recycling totes currently go to the curb about every third week. That’s often enough to keep them from overflowing from their space where the dishwasher previously sat.  I doubt that I’ll put out my single-stream recycling cart for collection every week when they’re issued in July – even though I’d get more coupon rewards for doing that. I think we’re pretty well maxed out on what we recycle. So to me, the ability to put out the recycling only every six weeks or so is reward enough.


  1. By Wayne
    April 1, 2010 at 11:30 am | permalink

    One thing you didn’t talk about is the effect of an incentive program on consumption quantity and quality. If you look at the recycle bank businesses they include Coca Cola and a lot of national corps. Promoting bad diet, more consumption and sending more money out of state are all issues that should also be addressed.

  2. April 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    You are asking the right questions. Originally our solid waste efforts were indeed focused on reducing waste to the landfill, but the metrics of that objective have become more and more obscure. In my view, there are two reasons (OK, three) to separate parts of the waste stream and process them differently.

    1. Reduce waste to the landfill (cost, capacity issues). The problem with this as a stand-alone, feel-good objective is that in recent years landfills have actually been having trouble getting enough waste to pay their way, which is why we started importing trash, etc. (I don’t have any recent figures.)

    2. Material recovery. Compostable stuff should be recycled to the good earth. Metals are a non-renewable resource and should be conserved for human use over the long run. Paper, recycled, saves new trees. Plastics can reduce use of new petrochemical consumption. (Glass is a little odd in terms of reuse.) The problem with this in single-stream is that some of the material, such as paper, will be degraded and not as well recovered.

    3. Keep toxic stuff out of the environment. Some metals, chemicals, fluorescent light fixtures, etc. should be separated so that they don’t end up in the groundwater.

    Of course, all three of those objectives can best be accomplished by reduction/reuse (except for compostables).

    As an old dyed-in-the-wool, left flank type of recycler, I’m pained to see you use “make life easier” as a reason. Here are a couple of points as to how that is not happening, though:

    1. We’ll have to store those carts, not going to be easy for everyone.
    2. Who wants to keep stinky old recyclables around for weeks? Or were you going to wash out everything with soap?
    3. We now have to take fluorescent tubes to the drop-off center (before A2 carts, they were being picked up at the curb), which is now charging an entry fee.
    4. With single-stream, no battery or oil pickup. What do we do with the batteries, throw them into the trash? So much for reducing toxics.

  3. By mae
    April 1, 2010 at 12:34 pm | permalink

    Another thing you didn’t talk about is the violation of residents’ privacy: this out-of-state corp. gets a variety of info — names, addresses, etc. — about individuals/households in Ann Arbor so that it can sell them “incentives.” This corp. should pay the city, not the other way around. No matter what they promise in terms of privacy, it’s a classic violation of trust to give them this info.

  4. By Jack F.
    April 1, 2010 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    Let’s not forget how the no bid contracts were awarded for this either.

  5. By Bug
    April 1, 2010 at 2:35 pm | permalink

    Love this writer. I even read the whole thing, and I went from “great april fool’s prank” to “best policy examination ever”. Humor and facts – good work!

  6. By sally m
    April 1, 2010 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    Great analysis. Thanks.

  7. By Tom Whitaker
    April 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm | permalink

    I’m no PhD scientist either, but the more I read, the more questions I seem to have.

    So, Ann Arborites generate 1002 pounds of landfilled trash and composted yard waste each year, per capita.

    And Westlanders generate 949 pounds of landfilled trash, plus composted yard waste each year, per capita. (I assume Westland compost their own yard waste. Maybe they send it to Ann Arbor?)

    I’m having trouble drawing any conclusions from the 53-pound difference without knowing what percentage is yard waste in each City. What if Ann Arbor collects far more yard waste per capita than Westland? That would mean less of our total non-recycled waste actually ended up in landfills under our current system than it does in their new, costly single-stream system. Or what if the numbers are reversed, and Westland collects more yard waste, but it turns out Ann Arborites do far more home composting than Westlanders? Minimizing collection (due to lack of waste generation) ought to be the goal, it seems to me.

    I also think we need to follow the recycled scrap to its final destination. Ann Arbor staff says none of our recently collected recyclable material went to a local landfill even though there was quite a depressed market for the materials. They say that’s because we have contracts that force our buyers to take the stuff in good times OR bad.


    1. If there really is no market anywhere in down times, we might still get paid, and the material might still “go away,” but what if the buyer is simply landfilling it themselves because it’s cheaper than storing it for better days? Are we OK with that, because we got our money and our rewards or should we aim higher and truer?

    2. Does Westland have the same deal with their buyers? If no, how much of that extra material was actually landfilled because their buyers wouldn’t take it at all? If they DO have the same deal, see question 1.

    3. Assuming all is well in the responses to 1 and 2, and the material was/is actually being recycled, will we be able to renew such contracts in the future, or have the buyers learned their lesson?

    4. Finally, will our current buyers also purchase the new materials to be accepted by the single-stream system or will they be different buyers? Either way, their may be a new contract or contract clause to be negotiated. Will we get the same “buy no matter what” deal on these newly accepted materials?

  8. April 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm | permalink

    I like Dave’s analysis, and would prefer that we try it without the RecycleBank component for a little while. I understand the intention of coordinating it with the rollout of the new system, though, as well as it being a component of the commercial recycling program. Maybe we can still work it out somehow. Apparently, one piece of the puzzle was the label on the new carts that read, “Earn rewards for recycling”. I don’t think that having that in place and skipping the RB rewards is necessarily an obstacle that can’t be overcome.

    In terms of other types of rewards, what do you all think about the possibility of combining weights for the whole city rather than by route (or later at the individual level)? If it were a single number, with less data to track, the city might be able to manage the rewards through the solid waste millage in a twist on Dave’s delayed-gratification scenario. If I understand correctly, the RB data collection system wouldn’t be needed. We’ve been in this together as a community so far, I don’t know that breaking us into smaller interest groups is better.

    On the question of what happens to the materials collected, to complete the picture we need to consider the use of the recycled materials to close the loop. Some people (presumably us among them) have to purchase recycled-content packaging and other products in order for the prices for those materials to rise and stay above landfilling-is-cheaper levels.

    @2: To your last point, Vivienne, city staff have stated that they will be working on a system of battery collection sites around town.

    @7: Good questions, Tom. What would you imagine would be a way to “aim higher and truer” that would prevent recyclable materials from going into landfills? Short of not using the materials in the first place, I can’t think of a practical alternative. At times it will be done, maybe not with our materials, but with some. How could we possibly prevent that?

  9. By Tom Whitaker
    April 1, 2010 at 11:14 pm | permalink

    “Higher and truer” starts with making decisions with all of the facts on the table, not just half the facts. Despite Dave’s additional research, we still don’t know the answer to the fundamental question–at least in my mind–which is will this new system, for all its costs, really mean less waste going to landfills? The answers would not appear to be that hard for staff to produce, but yet here we are, $8 million down the road and the we really don’t know exactly what we’re getting into.

    To switch to single-stream, we will be using resources to fabricate tens of thousands of new bins–maybe re-using the old ones for something else around the house, but I don’t doubt we’ll see many of them going to–you guessed it–the landfill. We’ll also have new equipment at the MRF and several new trucks. How much embodied energy in all that will have to made up before we can break even environmentally?

    Many people in this city have signed up for the Green Currents program (not me yet–I remain skeptical) where they agree to pay more for electricity because, in theory, the extra money will be used to fund alternative generating sources. We have a lot of motivated citizens who dutifully sort their recyclables and compostables. I gotta believe that if its a choice between saving .19 mils on our taxes or holistically reducing Ann Arbor’s environmental footprint, most of us would choose the latter. Saving money is not always in alignment with saving the planet.

    I remain unconvinced that single-stream is going to reduce our environmental footprint. Since the decision has already been made, I doubt we’ll see anyone at the City go out of their way to do any more research or polish their “sales pitch.” They already closed on the deal. Maybe I’ll take another look at Green Currents.

  10. By Ruth Kraut
    April 2, 2010 at 12:37 am | permalink

    Thanks for the additional information, Dave! I’m still not sure how I feel about single-stream recycling, but I do know that with a family of 5 I always fill up at least my paper tote, and often fill up 2 totes with paper, 1 with bottles, and they are a pain to drag out every week, so I am looking forward to having a large, easy-to-pull-to-the-curb container.
    I don’t need the Recycle Bank incentive–I think the big container will spur me to do some significant spring cleaning and recycle a lot of old paper!
    Maybe this is an apples-to-pears comparison, but I am curious as to what happened when the new compost bins were delivered. Did the amount of compost collected go up? By how much? And did the amount of compostable material going to the landfill decrease? Because I do think I fill up the compostable bin more, although some of that material probably would have ended up in my compost bin at home anyway.

  11. April 2, 2010 at 1:30 am | permalink

    Tom, I don’t think there’s any doubt that less materials will go to landfills. The more pertinent question is, ‘how much less’? No, we don’t know exactly what we’re getting into. We can’t know the future. Yet we have experience with the current contracts to build on, which, to answer your earlier question, are being continued with the same company/ies (that’s my understanding, at least.) So I think it again comes down to the question I posed to you: how do we prevent collected materials from going to landfills after we’ve sent them off, whether under the new system or the existing one?

    The old totes are recyclable, by the way. They also don’t last forever, so while the replacement of them with the carts may be premature in most cases, it’s not as if other investments in storage containers wouldn’t need to be made. Likewise, the educational efforts employed over the past decades have likely approached the limits of their effectiveness, so I think it’s reasonable to anticipate increased quantities collected as a result of the (almost) as-easy-as-putting-it-in-the-trash-can effect in addition to the new materials accepted. In other words, the choice isn’t between $8 million and $0, at least not if we want to continue recycling and want to improve the diversion rate.

    While Dave says of his household, “I think we’re pretty well maxed out on what we recycle,” there are many residents who aren’t. Our population is fairly transient, with about 50% renting. Folks like you and Vivienne (and me) who meticulously prepare our recyclables by rinsing, removing caps, etc. are not quite the rule. Even in non-student neighborhoods it’s not unusual to walk past totes of non-accepted materials and the like on pickup day. More to the point, in apartment houses like the one I live in and many student areas a lot of recyclables get put in the trash. Finally, new materials will be accepted, and even Dave might use some of them at some point and have the opportunity to recycle them.

    I’m not writing this in defense of the decision-making and public engagement processes. I agree that they could have been better in a number of ways. Rather, I agree with you that “making decisions with all of the facts on the table” is preferable, and I’m offering more information that doesn’t seem to have been taken into account by some (opponents.)

    While I’m at it, I’ll weigh in on Green Currents as well. There are many steps to be taken that do save money (over time) while decreasing environmental impacts—as well as employing people. (I think that environmentally beneficial changes that cost more are the exception, especially when all costs and benefits are taken into account.) Running an old, inefficient refrigerator, for example, with solar-generated electricity isn’t a good use of resources. All measures to reduce energy use in our homes and businesses, if implemented before (or simultaneously with) ‘green’ power purchasing will save money that can cover the premium costs of participating in the program. The PACE program that the city is working on developing (and which is awaiting enabling state legislation) will take such an approach, not funding renewables but concentrating instead on efficiency and demand reduction. Maybe down the road it will make sense to expand it to include solar PV after we all have tight buildings heated and cooled by geothermal systems.

  12. April 2, 2010 at 1:37 am | permalink

    I accidentally hit the ‘Submit Comment’ button before cleaning up the logic of the second paragraph of #11. I’ll clarify if anyone would like, but it’s close enough for this late. (When oh when will the Chronicle add a ‘Preview’ button a la ArborUpdate?)

  13. April 2, 2010 at 9:28 am | permalink

    I’m surprised no one asked the obvious question in my mind:

    If the goal is to reduce landfilled waste, and there’s a way to track individual households, why don’t we provide that data as well as recycling data?

    If the technology is only $150K to purchase (that seems ridiculously cheap to me) then why not have it applied to the garbage and yard waste bins as well? I think it would be kind of cool to be able to track overall performance.

    Personally, I like that more materials will be collected with the new program (although I wouldn’t mind keeping dual-stream if it accepted more materials.) As it is, I have to set out the recycling bins every week because they’re full. My garbage can goes out every four weeks, and I would estimate half of the waste is compiled of materials that will be accepted with the new program. With the new program, I will only have to put out one bin for recycling every week or two, and I expect my garbage can will go out every other month. Life will be easier!

  14. April 2, 2010 at 9:31 am | permalink

    Vivienne- Check out this company [link] to see some really cool uses for recycled glass. They are a customer of mine located near Salt Lake City, Utah. There are other companies that do similar things as well.

  15. April 2, 2010 at 9:48 am | permalink

    Janelle, thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen this, but was aware that recycled glass is used for a number of structural purposes, like these landscape materials. In my earlier comment, I was only trying to avoid suggesting that recycled glass is used for more bottles, which I think it isn’t much. But it isn’t “wasted”. The key is that the original material of which glass is made (silicon dioxide) is plentiful (sand), so recovering the base material is less important than with metals, for example.

    FWIW, I still have my recycling totes from the early 1990s. I had to replace one that a truck ran over, but otherwise they are going strong.

  16. By glenn thompson
    April 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    Tom McMurtrie stated that the glass collected in the Ann Arbor recycle program is sent to the Westland landfill. It was not clear in his statement whether it was used as road fill at the landfill or sold by the landfill as road base aggregate for use elsewhere.

    This does nothing to reduce the consumption of raw materials or energy to make the next bottle. It is not truly recycling.

    Glass can be recycled. There is a preferred ratio of used glass (cullet)to raw materials in the glass making process. Many years ago when I worked at a glass company there was often difficulty getting sufficient scrap glass. I do not know the situation now, but I suspect the biggest problem may still be the same; that is, the color sorting of the scrap and the color consistency demanded by the glass company customer

  17. April 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm | permalink

    I just heard from Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator and one of the staff working on designing the preliminary PACE program components. He corrected my statement that renewables wouldn’t be included in the program. They will, which is a necessary and good thing. At this point I don’t remember what I was thinking about when I stated that they wouldn’t, but obviously I was confused about something.

  18. By Brad Mikus
    April 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm | permalink

    Great article and comments.

    Millage Reduction: you don’t have to wait for the payback; this could happen immediately. If you spent 4 years building a fund balance (i.e. savings) for a car, you can stop saving immediately after you buy it because you don’t need that fund balance anymore…unless you expect your car to last only 4 years, or you are saving for another yet-to-be-determined purchase.

    Agree with Steve’s #8 comment. Kunselman asked if the city could just go to single-stream and measure the impact. The consultant presentation from 10/12 shows an expected increase of 100 lbs/hh/year to 457 with just a single-stream. However, staff said the carts already had the rewards message. It sounds like staff already decided that RecycleBank was city policy.

    Mostly agree with Mae. And they’ll know what coupons you use and sell the info to marketers.

    Last, I would like to see how this program meets expectations. As a suggestion to mayoral candidates, council should include performance measures in the resolution for every large capital purchase. Let them come back to council each year and justify their projections. This will provide oversight and help ensure accurate numbers for future projects.

  19. April 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm | permalink

    Brad makes some very good comments. I was particularly offended by the end-run around council by presenting them with a “done deal” on the carts (with the stamp already included).

    However, regarding millage reduction: this ignores the fact that the city has been finding lots of ways to shift expenses onto the solid waste millage. For example, the fall leaf pickup was shifted to solid waste from transportation. It had been previously paid for by the formula transportation funds coming from the state. I could speculate that the intention was to free up transportation funds to use for pet projects like the Fuller Road Station.

  20. By Cosmonican
    April 2, 2010 at 3:52 pm | permalink

    Something I’ve missed along the way is whether the new carts could contribute to litter in the streets. With the garbage carts, it is required to bag all items. The new recycle carts will be filled with loose cans and papers, and whatever else — what is to keep flotsam from flying out when they empty it, and messing up the neighborhood?

  21. By Dave Askins
    April 2, 2010 at 4:08 pm | permalink

    Re: [18] and [19] and the issue of the molded labels with the generic message “Earn rewards for recycling.” Tom McMurtie subsequently clarified that his remarks at the council meeting were intended to make clear that the placement of the labels was a one-time opportunity to make those kind of labels, not that the carts with those labels had already been purchased. And we added this clarification to the article: [Clarification: The authorization for the in-molded cart labels had not been made before the council approved the incentive contract.]

  22. April 2, 2010 at 4:55 pm | permalink

    Re (21): that clarification to the article was apparently added subsequent to the article’s publication (it is in a different color). It seems to conflict with this sentence further down the article:

    “McMurtrie responded by saying that the city council had already approved a purchase order for 33,000 carts and that the carts have in-molded labels saying that there would be rewards.”

  23. By Pete
    April 2, 2010 at 8:00 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, your points 3 and 4 lead to an obvious conclusion: we’re going to see pollution to our groundwater and illegal dumping skyrocket by all the people who don’t want to/can’t be bothered to PAY to spend a half hour taking their own materials to the drop off station.

    “You want to charge me to do the job you used to do for me for free? I think I’ll just walk on over to this park and get rid of my fluorescent bulbs and use this handy storm drain to get rid of my oil rather than drive, wait and pay.”

  24. By Eric Wucherer
    April 3, 2010 at 11:53 am | permalink

    1. “That would held keep local dollars local, she said.” I don’t follow this statement. The customer saves $5 (in the example), meaning it doesn’t go to the merchant, meanwhile the city pays RecycleBank money, which presumably comes out of tax money collected from the customer. So, the dollars seem to be going to RecycleBank instead of to the local merchants.

    I suppose RecycleBank might transfer money to the merchants as part of the partnership, and maybe loyalty would be established to the local merchant for other purchases, but these points are either unclear or fuzzy. Wayne claimed in @1 that RecycleBank partners with a lot of national companies… do we know what local companies they partner with, and how the economics of that work?

    2. Even without the data other commenters suggested (e.g. waste per household/capita that goes into landfills, yard waste, etc), a glaring absence in the data presented is historical data. It’d be pretty useful to see how even what numbers we’ve seen have changed over time in Westland, going back to before their single-stream program started, alongside Ann Arbor numbers. Without that, I can’t conclude that Westland’s apparent amount of recycling hasn’t always been higher than Ann Arbor’s, even without single-stream.

  25. By glenn thompson
    April 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm | permalink

    Mostly @Eric – Comment 24

    The majority of the “rewards” are discount coupons that are only useful if you buy more “stuff”. Just like the thousands of dollars of “rewards” you now receive in your mail box free each year. I believe the merchants have to pay RecycleBank to participate.

    There may be a few instances where the reward points may be converted as a donation to a project, but the value is greatly reduced.

    Comparing data between cities is very suspect because the detail basis behind the data is usually unknown. How did Ann Arbor measure number of households? Residential water meter connections? Census data? I believe the residential recycling program currently collects from some mutifamily units but not all. Did the number of households used in the AA and Westland calculations accurately reflect the number where the measured recyclable materials were collected?

    Here is a specific example of the problems in comparing cities. The historical data from Westland would show a very high increase in recycling with the RecycleBank program. There is only one little problem with the data, Westland did not have curbside pickup before the RecycleBank program. Is it any surprise that a large amount of material that citizens intended to take to the drop off station next week suddenly got recycled?

  26. April 5, 2010 at 10:54 am | permalink

    re: using the household data for a competition basis without a rewards program.

    As Dave points out, we already have that kind of data for utilities such as water and power, so if we wanted to have a competition-based green program, we could create that with what already exists.

    I don’t think it would be very effective, though. I think the transaction costs of getting people into that program would be high (that is, it would be too much of a hassle for most people to do), and I suspect that reward program-type petty bribery will motivate far more people than a competition would.

  27. By Jeff Gaynor
    April 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm | permalink

    As a teacher at Clague Middle School (AAPS) and seeing water bottles thrown in the trash 2 years ago, I arranged for a recycling cart. At first, I thought I was doing a good deed, but then realized I had created a monster. In the mantra of ‘more is better’ the rate of recycled bottles increased fourfold. Everyone was bringing in water bottles and recycling them, instead of, 1) using the water fountain; and 2) washing and reusing the bottles for a reasonable time. It became a game of how many bottles we could throw out (recycle) rather than how much less we could discard (recycle or trash). Somehow Recycling has become more virtuous than Reusing – perhaps because it can be quantified?

  28. By TMG2010
    April 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm | permalink

    Single/multi stream recycling is still an apples to apples comparison– in any case, the (Chronicle) comparison isn’t local enough for me… macintosh and gala or ann arbor, ’07 and ann arbor ’05 would be a better system for distinguishing the different systems– as in street by street, code by code… more detail less politics to help neighborhoods to see the benefit of not sorting! Ann Arbor is great at it- because of what we recycle, not how!

    ‘RecycleBank’ language (not treatment) could be implied to be maybe (shoulder shrug) retaliatory toward an economic system to which we are all already indebted and that is scarier to me than a basic fruits (low or high hanging matter) comparison.