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When cities are trying to change their waste diversion and recycling contracts, they often find they are in a conundrum. The city might have a preconceived notion that it needs to keep everything as it has been; any system improvement is viewed as adding something more. This approach is expensive because it inherently keeps all the current costs and adds new costs. Costlier still, if a new procurement is used to make the change, some increase in price for the current services will be likely, too.

A better management approach is to seek integral change—adjustments within the status quo that make room for additional waste reduction and recycling without drastically cutting services or increasing prices. As solid waste managers so often note when assisting their constituents, “It’s not more, it’s just different.” So, why pay more?

Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB), McLean, Virginia, is working with three cities that are looking to improve waste reduction and recycling while containing costs. Two (we’ll call them City A and City B) are involved in procurements, while the third (City C) currently is using city forces and contemplating if it can use those resources or will need to procure private sector services.

The tale of City A

City A has a population of slightly more than 250,000 and recently released an invitation to bid on its curbside collection services and recyclables processing. The city knew the per-ton cost for processing was going to increase significantly and anticipated at least a marginal increase in the per-household cost for collection.

After conducting focus groups and interviews with city residents and stakeholders and considering best practices as advised by GBB, the city warmed to the idea of adjusting its current level of service at the curb. Presently, residents can set out unlimited amounts of bagged waste and bulky items every week. To provide a clear understanding of the cost ramifications of that level of service, the city bid out the status quo plus two alternates, both of which reduced the amount of material residents can set out per week. The resulting bids all were slightly more than the current price, with the status quo being the most expensive. The city also found a way it might be able to add a waste reduction and diversion protocol without adding more programs.

As expected, the recycling processing bids were significantly higher than the current contract. This is why the bid solicitation stipulated revenue sharing that more heavily favored the city, which will receive 75 percent of net revenue, and the contractor will keep 25 percent.

The tale of City B

In City B, preparation of the procurement is in the initial phases. The primary issues that the city wants to address with the procurement are containing an anticipated cost increase and increasing waste diversion. This community of nearly 450,000 people not only has unlimited set-out at the curb, it also has twice-weekly collection of garbage. The second collection day is, of course, the single biggest opportunity to contain costs for residents.

Waste diversion and recycling performance can be addressed with three integral changes that do not constitute simply adding something more: transitioning from an opt-in recycling program to one that has universal distribution of carts, moving collection of yard waste to a separate day from other materials and using a cart for collection of yard waste that is currently bagged.

Residents of City B mix organic material with bulky items. If yard waste can get collected separately from bulky items and delivered to a proper reuse or composting facility, the number of tons diverted from landfill should increase. In this way, waste diversion and recycling can increase just by changing how people do what they already do without adding more.

GBB has been working with City B to analyze ways to reassign and adjust resources to implement the third option as efficiently as possible. One possibility is using a 96-gallon cart for recycling that is collected every other week and repurposing the 64-gallon carts for yard waste.

The tale of City C

In our third city, a much smaller community of 100,000 people, a citizen committee is deep into discussions regarding curbside service. In City C, municipal forces provide twice-weekly removal of all material. Recyclables and yard waste are not collected separately. The prospect of adding curbside recycling definitely brings with it the prospect of more.

City C, much like City B, has that second collection day each week that it could use to help pay for recycling. However, no yard waste facility is available. This means that garbage and trash set-out will remain sizable, even with exceptionally successful single-stream recycling collection.

City C does not currently have much else to adjust or manipulate to increase waste diversion and recycling. For these and other reasons, the addition of curbside recycling in City C likely will result in some immediate cost increases related to collection. Leaders and solid waste managers will need to make the case that integrated waste management is a core function of municipal services.

Breaking through the block

Cities can break through the mental block of “don’t change anything but change the results” and seek integral changes that adjust how residents access their services without cutting them.

For City A, managers are making adjustments that will let them catch up the pricing to the current costs while diverting more material. City B will have to look very hard at efficiencies and services to divert more without charging much higher rates. In City C, leaders will need to show how more will mean more—more efficient service and more opportunity for the city to progress as a marketable place to live.

Kate S. Vasquez is a senior consultant with GBB, McLean, Virginia. A version of this article appeared in the May issue of Recycling Today, a sister publication of Waste Today.