Column: Pedaling and the Price of Recycling

Does recycling make economic sense?
Styrofoam baler

Styrofoam baler with gates open, and the masher in the "down position." In this position, the operator can slide wires through slots in the top and the bottom to wrap the bale securely, before releasing the pressure on the masher. (Photos by the writer.)

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.

styrofoam on bicycle cargo trailer

A recycling load hauled by HD Hauling and Delivery: Styrofoam, gallon jugs (glass and plastic).

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.”

giant green bin of containers

The "container" bin at Recycle Ann Arbor's drop off station.

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.

sign at the drop off station booth

Sign at Recycle Ann Arbor's drop off station gatehouse announcing the new $3 entry fee to start on Jan. 2, 2010.

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.


  1. December 30, 2009 at 9:58 am | permalink

    Fascinating ruminations, Dave. You bring up a very important point, namely that recyclables (all the different materials we recycle) are commodities and obey commodity market rules. Namely, there are booms and busts. Within the last 5 years, paper has been hugely in demand and profitable, because it was being shipped to China for use in many industrial applications. Then the bottom dropped out, China stopped buying it and paper piled up in warehouses, storage yards – and landfills. Many of the current schemes for increasing recycling rates ignore this basic market characteristic of recyclables; namely, that you can’t recycle if no one wants the material.

    The implication is that any recycling scheme must be flexible enough to accept some losses during the downtime for a given commodity, while ready to use the profits from the upside to support the operation. A nonprofit like Recycle Ann Arbor is perfectly positioned to do this. But because we hold as a value that maximum recovery of potentially recycled items is a societal good, we have to be ready to subsidize it through the downtimes so that they continue to accept all materials even when they have little value. We the public can hardly be expected to read the market reports before deciding what to put in the recycle bin.

    Unfortunately, the move to single-stream recycling is based on assumptions that all materials will be of high value – even promising people who recycle their refuse a reward. The city also expects to make a profit from it. While we are spending (literally) millions for this new scheme, we have stopped supporting our home-grown recycling drop-off. I fear that the result will indeed be many yards of refuse added to a landfill somewhere, increased fees for city waste removal in the future – or even loss of our waste (trash) removal service. (This has already been proposed by Roger Fraser.)

    The justification for this prediction is that we are spending the “excess” in our solid waste enterprise fund on this new venture – including nice consulting fees for Resource Recycling Systems – on setting up the single-stream recycling program to attract business from other communities. And other communities may figure out that paying extra to dispose of recyclables doesn’t make sense for them. It is intended to be a profit center – but what if it isn’t? It will be an expense. And we’ll have to pay it through loss of our customary service or increased fees, or both.

    I regret that the council has allowed itself to be led down this path. But I’m guessing that Stew Nelson’s golf game is safe for the moment.

  2. By Bob Martel
    December 30, 2009 at 10:37 am | permalink

    People respond to economic cues. One possible solution would be to charge manufacturers a “packaging fee” based on the type and amount of packaging that is used to contain the actual product being sold. This would of course have to be a nationally based fee as no State or local municipality could exert the influence (nor circumvent the Commerce Clause)to make this happen. Also, please note that I call this a “fee” rather than a “tax” to make this more palatable to our Republican friends. This could work but it would require a degree of moral outrage with our trash disposal problem that I do not believe currently exists in this country. Oh well, maybe someday!

  3. By Lin Williams
    December 30, 2009 at 10:39 am | permalink

    Wow. I learned a lot from this article and Armentrout’s comments. Thanks very much!

    The lucidity of the article allayed my nervousness about content coming from somebody who wears a helmet while typing! (joke!)

  4. By Gill
    December 30, 2009 at 11:31 am | permalink

    Although it is a bust in the recycle market right now, isn’t it still cheaper to recycle per ton than it is to landfill per ton?

  5. December 30, 2009 at 1:16 pm | permalink

    “If [recycling] were across-the-board less wasteful, it wouldn’t require subsidy.”

    Maybe, Dave, maybe not. It depends on how much less. But that’s just a clarification of the assumption in your statement. The more important point is that a subsidy is not the same as a fee.

    In this situation, I suspect that the reverse is actually true: drop -off station users were subsidized in the past and now will need to pay the true cost of the service. How could that be true? My guess is that most drop-off center users are from outside the city and don’t pay the solid waste millage and also don’t’ get “free” refuse collection as a result. The alternative for them is to pay someone to haul their waste to a transfer station or landfill. Recycling was a good deal and probably still will be even with the fee. The interest in yearly passes that you noted seems to be evidence of that. What I wonder is why there won’t be a lower fee for city residents.

    And of course, if the hidden costs of landfills (not to mention petroleum products like plastics as well as gasoline, roads, etc.) were rolled into our disposal fees — i.e., they weren’t subsidized — I have no doubt that recycling would be consistently profitable.

    Vivienne’s use of “subsidize” is similarly inappropriate. The solid waste enterprise fund is managed to reinvest the revenues from the sale of recyclable materials into improvements of the overall system.

    @1: “the move to single-stream recycling is based on assumptions that all materials will be of high value”

    Actually, the move to single-stream recycling is based on conservative estimates of the combined value of all collected materials over time. At times some materials will have lower relative returns and other materials will actually cost us money to get someone to use them (as is the case now.) But overall, the high-revenue materials will more than compensate for those temporary drops. If, in time, a material were to become permanently out of favor, we would no doubt stop collecting and processing it.

    In addition to the commodity aspect of recycling that Vivienne explained, the other primary factor in the value of recyclables is the cost of energy. (By the way, recycling programs were started because they reduce use of resources, not because they keep things out of landfills — that’s just a result. The nasty stuff in landfills isn’t so much the paper, metals, glass, or even plastics that we can recycle, it’s more so the junk that we can’t.) Since we don’t fully value trees as a society and we don’t directly pay the costs of environmental impacts from mining, the main material cost factor in manufacturing of the products in question is for the fuels. And short of not making the product those energy costs are essentially unavoidable. The revenues from recycling are largely a result of the difference in the cost of energy to reuse the material compared to using virgin materials.

    Due to having passed world peak oil and the need to address climate change, energy costs will steadily rise in the near future. As they do, recycling will only become more profitable (on the whole.) The conservative estimates for single-stream recycling revenues should ensure that our recycling system won’t be the cause of cuts to other solid waste services.

    Finally, like Dave’s thoughts on Huron Hills, Roger Fraser didn’t propose the elimination of trash collection service, he proposed the consideration of doing so. There’s a difference.

  6. By Linda Diane Feldt
    December 30, 2009 at 2:31 pm | permalink

    There is a fourth “R” – Rot. Composting is also a valuable way to keep your trash levels down. Even better, feed your back yard chickens with those food scraps.

    And Ann Arbor has [Yahoo! Group Link] with over 6,000 members this group is the ultimate in a reuse system that works. Post what you want or what you can offer. I’ve given away hundreds of things that I didn’t want to go to the landfill.

    It is expensive to consume things. At the beginning of a products life, but also at the end. The drop off fee is a good reminder of that fact. I think the more discussion leading to more awareness and then more thoughtfulness to what and how we consume is a very good thing.

    Thanks Dave. You are quite a sight when fully loaded with Styrofoam. That’s worth something as well!

  7. December 30, 2009 at 3:08 pm | permalink

    Have you thought about Waste-to-Energy? I know in Broward County, FL, we received electricity from the burning of trash, which was supposedly done in a clean way that also reduced landfill “issues.” The University of Florida has a mostly outdated page on some of the benefits as well as mp3 from an NPR piece. [Link]

  8. By Paul L. Bancel
    December 30, 2009 at 3:08 pm | permalink

    Dear Dave, Your headline reads “Does recycling make economic sense? Unfortunately I can’t find any analysis in the article that addresses the question posed. It is a good question, so what are the facts or in other words, what is it costing us to recycle. So the City is cutting its subsidy by $ 100,000. What is the total subsidy?

  9. December 30, 2009 at 3:26 pm | permalink

    I stopped by the Recycling Center the other day and paid $5 to recycle a fax machine. I didn’t want to just dump it in the garbage.

    I’d pay the new $8 total as well, but I bet a lot of people won’t.

    What the fee will really lead to IMO is more recyclable waste being dumped in landfills.

  10. December 30, 2009 at 3:31 pm | permalink

    In response to Steve Bean (#5): Here is the sentence where I used “subsidize”: “But because we hold as a value that maximum recovery of potentially recycled items is a societal good, we have to be ready to subsidize it through the downtimes so that they continue to accept all materials even when they have little value”. I was stating a principle, not describing the function of the solid waste enterprise fund. Whether within the structure of an enterprise fund or from the general fund, if the recycling of some materials is not subsidized during times that material is of low value, it will not be recycled.

    Yes, I agree that Roger Fraser did not make a formal recommendation that we discontinue trash removal services and that this is different from including it on a list for consideration. (If he made a formal recommendation to council, they would have to act on it immediately and his recommendation would carry considerable weight.) But his inclusion of ceasing city-provided trash pickup (in my opinion, because it does not make money) on a list of changes for consideration is enough of a ground-shaker to be of note.

    Linda Diane Feldt (#6): Yeah for composting! Me too. (Though not everyone has the space or the physical ability to compost everything.) I think your Yahoo link must be for Freecycle, though it didn’t display as such. I have gotten rid of half the contents of my attic through this great program, and acquired a printer for my husband’s study. It is a superb way for reuse.

    Fred Posner (#7): the waste-to-energy idea was thoroughly discussed and discarded for most communities years ago, unfortunately not including Detroit and Ypsilanti Township. It leads to air pollution, does not encourage reuse and recycling, and is definitely bad on the carbon balance question.

  11. By Karen Sidney
    December 30, 2009 at 3:51 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor residents are not the only users of the city’s solid waste facilities. Our transfer station, MRF and compost facility accept waste from other communities, including all of Wayne Co’s yard waste. In theory, other users are supposed to pay fees that equal the cost of the service. In practice, our solid waste tax millage is being used to subsidize services for other communities. Between FY05 and FY09, the operating cost of solid waste services, after subtracting fees has increased 46%. I doubt the cost of providing services to city residents has increased 46% and if it has, we need new management.

    Unless the public puts a stop to using our millage as venture capital to expand our solid waste “business” to other communities, we will see more service cuts and more fee increases.

  12. By Samuel Rosewig
    December 30, 2009 at 4:10 pm | permalink

    Seems to me that we would be much better off, individually and collectively, if we played a little psychological trick on ourselves regarding the cost of consumption and disposal: rather than pay a “fee” to recycle difficult or hazardous items, we should pay a “deposit” at the time of purchase. The total dollar amount could be the same, but it would drastically shift the incentives away from waste — and toward responsibility.

    How many people would dump a TV in the ditch if it was worth $25 at the drop-off station? Wouldn’t citizens be more likely to turn in old paint, batteries, or compact fluorescent bulbs if it allowed them to retrieve several dollars’ of deposit for each item?

    Michigan’s 10-cent container deposit has always seemed a clear, simple and sensible law that encourages responsible behavior. Why not extend the notion to a range of consumer electronics or household items?

  13. December 30, 2009 at 5:03 pm | permalink


    “It leads to air pollution, does not encourage reuse and recycling, and is definitely bad on the carbon balance question.”

    I cannot think of a more incorrect statement regarding waste to energy. If that was the conclusion, then it was wrong and should be reconsidered.

    - Waste-to-Energy can reduce landfill’s by 90%

    - Waste-to-Energy burners must conform to Clear Air Act Section 129 — having less environmental impact than almost any other source of electricity (US EPA)

    - Communities that have Waste-to-Energy actually have a higher recycle rate than non-Waste-to-Energy communities (J.V.L. Kiser)

    - Waste-to-Energy eliminates methane emissions from garbage

    - Four independent studies (including one by EPA) have shown that:
    For every ton of trash disposed in a waste-to-energy plant, there would be nearly one ton LESS of carbon dioxide released into the air due to avoided land disposal, fossil fuel power generation, and metals productions.

    - Avoided green house gas emissions make make Waste-to-Energy very attractive alternative to landfilling with regard to reducing CO2 emissions.

    Your statement that it “leads to air pollution, does not encourage reuse and recycling, and is definitely bad on the carbon balance” is so completely wrong, that I encourage you to research, rethink, and cite what led to those conclusions.

  14. By Jim
    December 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    Too bad to hear about the fee, it will most certainly drive people to put items in the garbage instead of recycling.

  15. By Dave
    December 30, 2009 at 7:33 pm | permalink

    I agree with Jim. My family saves plastic bags and styrofoam for periodic trips to the drop off center. We’ll continue to make these trips even with the fee, but I wonder how many people will just chuck into the trash the stuff that can’t be picked up.

  16. December 30, 2009 at 10:08 pm | permalink

    @10: From the Wikipedia definition of “subsidize”: “A subsidy can be used to support businesses that might otherwise fail, or to encourage activities that would otherwise not take place.” To apply this term to recycling is misleading. The low revenues for certain materials at certain times is related to the broader economy, not a characteristic of recycling itself.

    @11: The solid waste enterprise fund goes through periods of higher and lower spending depending on the amount of current investment in capital.

    “In practice, our solid waste tax millage is being used to subsidize services for other communities. ”

    “Unless the public puts a stop to using our millage as venture capital to expand our solid waste ‘business’ to other communities, we will see more service cuts and more fee increases.”

    You’re going to have to back up those assertions, Karen.

    The reason that our MRF is being developed to provide recyclable processing for nearby communities is that those communities would otherwise need to ship the materials even further to another facility (or not recycle them), with the revenues going to that facility and its community. They can’t afford to invest in a MRF themselves, but they can afford to use ours, and benefit in the process.

    @14, 15 and others: Keep in mind that the single-stream recycling program is planned to start next year (July?) and will allow most plastic items other than polystyrene foam. Best case scenario is that we all work together to fully eliminate problematic materials like Styrofoam.

  17. By Dave D
    December 31, 2009 at 10:11 am | permalink

    Perhaps someone should start up a recycling collection service with draft horses and wagons, as was common in many smaller cities well into the 1950′s. Perhaps they would also be exempt from the $3 fee.

  18. By David
    December 31, 2009 at 10:40 am | permalink


    Plastic bags can be dropped off with no fee at the Krogers on Maple. I am not sure where one can drop off styrofoam other than the recycling center. I save mine and use it for packing material.

  19. By Cathy A.
    December 31, 2009 at 2:06 pm | permalink

    Remember the hike in gas prices two summers ago? How quickly people got the picture, and modified behavior. In the past year, re-usable grocery bags have become de rigueur, and non-toxic laundry soaps are widely available now, as are concentrated detergents.

    Environmental issues are health issues. People seem to be getting the picture.

    What will markets be like in another five years? I suspect people will want the choice of e-packaging, in addition to Free Trade, and sustainably-harvested wood, among other environmentally-friendly choices.

    Less packaging (and any other raw material that quickly becomes trash) should translate into lower cost. With increasingly competitive industries, and inevitable higher prices in energy, avoiding waste in packaging and energy use can translate into maintaining a competitive edge.

    There are numerous forces at work now, and into the near future: people’s concern for health as related to the environment, increasing energy costs, and a more educated consumer.

    I’m hopeful that waste streams will diminish at their source.

  20. By Karen Sidney
    December 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm | permalink


    If you want me to believe that our taxes are not subsidizing other communities, I need an explanation of why the cost of providing solid waste services to Ann Arbor residents has gone up 46% in 4 years at the same time services have gone down. So far, I have only heard unsupported assertions from city staff and the city’s consultant, who gets no bid contracts, that spending millions will save us money. Well, the numbers show we haven’t saved any money.

  21. December 31, 2009 at 6:34 pm | permalink

    Karen, I offered a possible explanation for what you’re seeing in the numbers, but that doesn’t seem to be satisfactory (either.) You refer to the cost of providing solid waste services. Is that what you really mean, or are you referring to spending during that period? Those are two different things.

    As for unsupported assertions, you haven’t yet demonstrated that yours are more than speculation. You as much as admit that you don’t have anything more than numbers and the word (which you don’t believe) of others.

    What service reductions are you referring to? This discussion has been about the recycling system. Are you thinking of compost collection service?

    Savings can be measured relative to previous years or relative to the alternatives for a given time period — e.g., what would we have spent on total solid waste management if we hadn’t made the investments we did? Maybe you’re not looking at the numbers the same way as staff are.

    I’m not asking you to believe anything. I just have information that you don’t seem to have (or believe.) I think that information is more valuable than speculation. I also think that people are more forthcoming with information when they’re not being accused of malfeasance. In the end, you might be right about some of this. In the meantime, let’s get the information so we can know for sure.

  22. December 31, 2009 at 9:22 pm | permalink

    Seconding Linda Diane’s (and others) composting recommendation. I have to admit that I was at first afraid that it would smell, well, like stank. It doesn’t though. Since I’m essentially lazy much of the time, I bought a nice ceramic temporary compost holder that I keep under my sink and it happily holds scraps until I haul my butt out to the pile.
    I’d also like to recommend vermicomposting (worm composting). It works great until the f’in raccoons that winter in your garage knock the top off and commit wormacide. Then it’s tragic.

  23. By Edith
    January 2, 2010 at 4:23 am | permalink

    Goodwill has a program for free electronics recycling.

  24. By suswhit
    January 2, 2010 at 9:48 am | permalink

    “It works great until the f’in raccoons that winter in your garage knock the top off and commit wormacide. Then it’s tragic.”

    I’m so sorry for your loss. ;-) But I love your use of the words “wormacide” and “tragic.”

  25. By Rod Johnson
    January 2, 2010 at 10:34 am | permalink

    Shouldn’t it be “vermicide,” though?


  26. By Dan Ezekiel
    January 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    In times of low market prices, recycling some materials costs more money than the proceeds from the sale of the materials collected. However, throwing the same materials in the landfill isn’t free either, and it always costs less to recycle materials than to landfill them. Trash is always subsidized.

    The city wisely (in my opinion) subsidizes the cost of recycling materials at times of low market prices, because if it constantly changed the materials collected, people wouldn’t remember what they could and couldn’t recycle, and volumes would plunge. When a material’s price subsequently spiked, citizens would have been ‘trained’ not to recycle it.

  27. January 2, 2010 at 10:21 pm | permalink

    Vermicide! Absolutely :) Seriously, it was an awful shock to see my little pets all…gone. They had bred and had little families and everything. At least they are together in worm heaven.
    I clearly need to stop thinking about this :)

  28. By suswhit
    January 3, 2010 at 9:35 am | permalink

    Eh! Ann Arbor. Where everyone is an editor! ;-)

  29. By Rod Johnson
    January 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm | permalink

    Um, that’s a sentence fragment there. *tsk* :-\

  30. By suswhit
    January 3, 2010 at 3:29 pm | permalink

    lol. :-)

  31. By Kelly Stark
    January 22, 2010 at 11:24 am | permalink

    I LOVE Samuel Rosewig’s comment (#12) about paying a deposit at the time of purchase. What a great way to encourage recycling of hazardous and hard-to-recycle items! And if the original purchaser can’t be bothered to recycle, there’s an economic incentive for someone else to do it.