Tucson will keep its curbside recycling pickup at every other week, making the move more than four months after launching a pilot program to account for rising costs amid a change in the global recycling market.
The City Council unanimously voted to put the change into law Wednesday after Carlos De La Torre, the city’s director of environmental and general services, said the pilot program that began Sept. 30 was a success.
“We’re seeing that essentially we’re no longer picking up too much air and we’re basically picking up real recyclables,” he said.
De La Torre said the program specifically found that more than 80% of blue bins were at least half full on the every-other-week schedule, while the tonnage per load increased by 35%, compared to the previous weekly pickups.
That coincided with a reduction in fuel, maintenance and overtime costs.
The city has received about 1,400 calls since the change went into effect, the majority regarding the pickup schedule, which designates “A” and “B” areas to stagger pickup times, he said.
The city also received nearly 750 requests for a secondary recycling bin; 315 of the requests were fulfilled, 66 were denied and the remainder are pending.
He noted that Tucson has made about $32 a ton on recycling this fiscal year so far, while it cost about $100 a ton, resulting in a net loss; that’s compared to $94 and $30 just five years ago.
One of the biggest costs, he said, is contamination. Tucson is being charged about $33,000 a month — or $400,000 a year — in fees because of non-recyclables being placed into the blue bins, a list that included items such as diapers, paint and excess lumber.
That fee would be eliminated should the city reduce the contamination number in half, he said.
The city’s contamination rate of about ª of total recyclables is higher than the rate of peer recycling cities, including El Paso, Austin, Mesa, Seattle and Denver, but lower than Albuquerque and Phoenix, he said.
De La Torre said Tucson has a three-strike program to remove offenders from the program, but it is not being enforced.
The council’s vote included a recommendation to enforce the three-strike program.
“The way I see it is that people who are contaminating our recycling are costing us $400,000 a year,” Mayor Regina Romero said. “What I’m hearing from you is that you want to charge all of us for what a certain percentage users are doing to contaminate our recycling. I don’t like that.”
Tucson’s decision to cut down recycling pickups came as China and other nations opted to no longer accept many recyclables from the United States, forcing municipalities around the country to seek ways to reduce rising recycling costs.
Local officials opted in August to implement the every-other-week recycling program, estimating at the time that it would save the city roughly $1.4 million a year.
The city also took $2 million from the hotel bed surcharge to cover increased recycling processing costs.
The city expects to have a total savings estimate at the six-month mark.
De La Torre’s presentation also included a recommendation to stop glass recycling, noting that the practice makes very little revenue and has less environmental impact compared to other recyclables, such as metals and paper.
The council rejected the recommendation, instead asking De La Torre to come up with a specific replacement plan, including modifications to the city’s contract with Republic Services and whether to set up glass drop-off sites around the city.
Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham said he wants that discussion to be part of a larger scale effort to “rethink how we’re doing recycling.”
“I want to be the trend setter, not the trend follower,” he said. “We have some opportunity here.”
Cunningham offered his support for another pilot program, that of fellow Council member Steve Kozachik, who has started crushing glass bottles and turning them into sand in the garage of his Ward 6 office. Kozachik has previously pitched using that sand for city roads, sandbags and sidewalks.
“If we’re one of those cities that’s milling even 10% of our new road materials internally from our Environmental Services department to Transportation department, that’s going to make us unique. That’s going to make Tucson special,” Cunningham said.
Kozachik, who passed around a mason jar of the sand during Wednesday’s meeting, said “the community has bought into this notion of finding a secondary market.”
He estimated that he’s crushed 4,000 gallons of bottles — provided to him from local businesses — into 500 gallons of sand, which he’s used to fill sandbags and for concrete for the sidewalk in front of his office.
He told the Arizona Daily Star he’s sent a cost estimate for a larger-scale crusher for the city, which would cost about $40,000.
“There’s a market and a way to do this,” Kozachik said. “We need to think collaboratively to figure out how to do it without breaking the bank.”
Contact reporter Justin Sayers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.
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