It’s been about six weeks since Mayor Todd Strange, ever mindful of ecomomics, stopped the city’s curbside recycling program. We (and our large group of friends) were quite saddened by this news. Even though we had our share of issues getting our hands on the official municipal orange recycling bags, we do recycle a lot, even collecting glass (which Montgomery never recycled … at least as long as we’ve lived here) and sending it to another nearby (more progressive) city for reprocessing.
So, we were prepared to be vehemently opposed to the end of curbside recycling, but instead were surprised to find ourselves somewhat lukewarm on the issue. Only a third of Montgomery households participated in the program. And we can vouch for the flexible definition of “participate” – while we regularly put out at least one full orange bag every week, other houses appeared to put out a bag with a few items in it every two weeks. Even if you are a strong believer in recycling, it’s hard to justify the fossil fuel use for trucks cruising up and down streets for the weekly recycling pickup when results are so meager.
It gets worse – turned out that city was using the McInnis Recycling Center (a business effort of the Montgomery Association for Retarded Citizens) to process the materials. That facility could only handle about a quarter of what it got through curbside pickup. The remainder was either sent to the Elmore County recycling program or to the landfill. Only 1% of the city’s waste was getting recycled.
Eliminating this massively ineffective recycling program saved the city $400,000 per year (so we were told by the local newspaper). The City was bleeding money, facing an $8 million budget shortfall and burning through the entirety of municipal reserves. In this fiscal crisis, with the city taking a bath on any number of budget items including the terrible Bobby Bright legacy lunch trolley (which was losing $75,000 per year), we found ourselves agreeing with reduced pickup. Or even eliminated pickup. The Mayor said that the city was moving toward drop-off sites that would be open twice a month on Saturday. Probably this reduced recycling input (conceding that ending curbside pickup would lead to decreased participation) would mean that all the recycling at least, you know, got recycled. Maybe the city should have thought about the capacity limitations of Montgomery’s retarded people before they set up the recycling program. We’re not saying those people shouldn’t have jobs (obviously), but if the McInnis facility can’t handle being the sole site of Montgomery’s recycling program, they shouldn’t be handed a job bigger than they can do.
In any case, we were less motivated to show up and complain about the end of curbside recycling once we found out how wretched the existing program was. That’s when Mayor Strange hit us with the one-two punch of his proposed alternatives.
- Option One: Sort All The Trash. The Mayor was talking for a while about a program like the one being set up in Baldwin County by Team Green Recycling. TGR is a private company building a plant to take in all of Baldwin County’s trash, unsorted, and sort it before it goes to the landfill. They make money by selling the recyclables, and the city makes money by reducing landfill costs. Turns out it’s not cheap for cities to handle solid waste, and it makes financial sense for cities to reduce their trash output (though landfill fees are still inordinately cheap, especially in communities without an interest in forcing “true pricing,” taking pay-later externalities into account). In any case, this approach seemed credible and reasonable, having been tried before in other similar communities. But we haven’t heard much about it since October, and maybe that’s because TGR’s money is all tied up getting the Baldwin County project off the ground, so they’re not ready to invest up here.
- Option Two: The Plasma Plant. A “plasma plant?” Sounds like some of that geoengineering crap that people float to avoid having to deal with the pressing need to actually reduce consumption and carbon emissions. Without knowing anything at all about how this works, we can only say for sure that the city’s has recently agreed to do a one-year “feasibility study,” after which we may build a plant which may be ready in three years.The idea of these things is that they use very high temperatures on the solid waste, recyclables and all. No special curbside pickup. No sorting. No consumer effort at all. Organic stuff vaporizes and makes steam to run a turbine, so gasification plants are supposed to generate power to sell back to the grid. Other stuff that doesn’t “gasify” ends up being reduced into “slag,” which industry sites assure us can be used for many purposes, including building blocks and roads. The plants don’t produce ash. One of the major problems is that no municipality in the US has a running plasma plant now. The first one, in Florida, is expected to be running by 2011. There is a plant in Huntsville that uses plasma technology, but it’s basically just an incinerator and produces ash. And we have no information on what this means as far as air emissions when you go around and burn up an entire city’s worth of milk jugs and disposable diapers and glass jars and old cell phones and batteries and all the other shit that people put into their trash cans.
The Mayor said he’d get back to us on these options. The City Council said fine. Then we received this flyer in the mail informing us of the recycling drop-off locations, and including the fine print that plastic would no longer be recycled by the city. Only paper and cardboard and aluminum. This seemed like some kind of sick joke. Recycle two days a month, paper and cardboard and aluminum only. Plus, it turned out that at least one of the schools had Saturday school, causing some unpleasantness (or at least jockeying for parking) between the school attendees’ parents and local recycling aficionados.
All of which has left us with a number of questions. Such as:
1. If the city is so super broke, how are we going to afford cutting-edge plasma technology that NO OTHER CITY IN THE UNITED STATES HAS?
2. What are we going to do if the feasibility study comes back in one year and indicates that a plasma plant isn’t an ideal solution? What if they cost more than we expect, or don’t work? Or they leave poison in the ground where they are built? Or emit lots of air pollution? Or blow up regularly, killing all the workers who work there?
3. What are we going to do in the meantime? Fill our landfills with glass and plastic simply because the City of Montgomery can’t seem to set up a recycling system like the one in Troy, Alabama, population 12,000 or so? A tiny town 45 minutes to the south of us has figured out how to do curbside recycling of glass, metal, paper, cardboard, and plastic, and not bleed money and go bankrupt? What’s our problem up here?
4. Can’t we just stop our absurd twice-a-week trash pickup and do a single day of the week to pick up trash and a single day of the week to pick up recycling? And start doing glass? And plastic? And somehow not exclusively rely on McInnis to sort it all? And maybe even find a way to sell the recycled goods on the private market and make it into a revenue stream for the city? Or if not, just declare that this is a service (like free parks, for example) that makes our city worth living in and it’s worth it to lose money on since it makes our city a more attractive place to live?