Is Recycling in Turner Valley meeting your expectations?

 

By Wayne Lapaire

Employees of the Town of Turner Valley manage and operate the Oilfields Recycling Centre (hereafter called the Centre in this report) on behalf of the three municipalities that receive recycling services (Black Diamond, Turner Valley and the MD of Foothills). According to town supplied accounting records, the costs of operating the Centre have risen from approximately $134,000 in 2014 to a projected $190,000 in 2018 – an overall increase of 42% or about 10% per year.

The total expenses for the Centre provided directly from the town accounting system are presented in the following table.

Table 1. Reported expenses.

Description

2014 Actual2015 Actual2016 Actual2017 Actual 2018 Actual YTD
Total Expenses$ 133,481.89 $ 145,570.73 $ 178,218.56 $ 187,814.94 $ 142,653.98

Please note that the numbers for 2018 actual are for the first 9 months only. It should also be noted that these numbers include operating expenses only. The capital costs associated with the facility were not obtained from the town.

The cost of operations is almost entirely supported by mandatory fees that are charged on your utility bills. The total value received for recycled materials in the first six months of 2018 was $1,348.78, which on an annualized basis is about 0.7% of the operating cost. So it can be concluded that recycling in Turner Valley is not about the money received for materials, rather it is about diverting material from landfill and extending the life of recycled materials.

Currently over 80% of the costs are payroll related for the town staff assigned to run the Centre.

A Turner Valley homeowner must pay $72.00 per year on your utility bill. Households in Black Diamond must pay $56.10 per year. The per household costs for the MD were not determined for this report. Turner Valley businesses with premises are each paying $96.00 per year. The waste bylaw for Black Diamond does not have a separate recycling fee for businesses.

The total revenues for the Centre provided directly from the town accounting system are presented in the following table.

Table 2. Reported revenues.

Description2014 Actual2015 Actual2016 Actual2017 Actual2018 Actual YTD
Contracted Service MD- Recycling D $ - -$ 46,536.00 $ --$ 54,391.32 $ -
Sale of Services/Billing Revenue-$ 69,674.37 -$ 77,748.32 -$ 81,968.20 -$ 84,036.37 -$ 56,746.12
Sale of Products/Rebates-$ 10,405.83 -$ 5,961.73 -$ 9,100.86 -$ 11,404.04 -$ 1,667.24
Resale of Goods-$ 11,085.70 -$ 3,444.81 -$ 1,945.62 -$ 1,490.00 -$ 2,520.00
Other Revenue-$ 21.10 $ - -$ 1,650.00 $ - -$ 65.00
Services Contracted to B.D.-$ 81,579.30 -$ 24,747.54 -$ 57,285.43 -$ 55,753.21 -$ 29,515.29
Services Contracted to MD.$ - $ - $ - $ -
Drawn From Operating Reserves$ - $ - $ - $ - $ -
-$ 172,766.30 -$ 158,438.40 -$ 151,950.11 -$ 264,563.49 -$ 90,513.65

Please note that the numbers for 2018 actual are for the first 9 months only.

To their credit, the town employees at the recycling center do take their jobs seriously. There is a portion of the building that supports local recycling, for example books and other reusable items salvaged by the staff are picked up by patrons that drop by. As one of the staff pointed out to me one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. You can also drop off electronics and batteries. If you have not used the Centre, you should drop by to have a look.

With the current financial model, the Centre does have an operating profit, so operating the Centre does not directly impact your taxes. The capital costs associated with the Centre were not obtained for this report.

This is all good as far as it goes, however, the question we are exploring in this article is “Are you getting what you expect for this service?”

Let’s start with what your recycling expectations are. There are still many households that do not take the effort to sort through their trash and separate the recyclable material. If you are one of these households, we would encourage you to consider recycling. We recognize that for this to happen, the recycling service must be both convenient to use, and effective – by effective we mean that the service achieves the desired goal of both diverting a significant amount of total available material from landfill and ensuring that the life of the recycled material is indeed extended to become new products.

Convenience

There are many residents of Turner Valley that find the Centre to be inconvenient. It may be the fixed hours that are suitable for the Town of Turner Valley civil servants that operate the Centre or the fact that there is no after hours drop off. It might also be the time that it takes to sort the material into the “correct” bins under the watchful eyes of the employees who stand ready and able to tell you what to do.

Some Turner Valley recyclers have opted for the convenience of curbside pickup provided by local recycling companies. At this time we estimate that there are as many as 100 Turner Valley residences that are paying for curbside recycling services over and above paying the mandatory recycling fee on their utility bills.

Others take their recycled materials to Calgary where they enjoy the convenience of dropping off into a single bin that is available 24 hours per day. The City of Calgary provides these bins for their citizens and taxpayers in addition to curbside recycling to maximize the diversion from landfill. Non-residents that use the bins are getting recycling support from Calgary taxpayers.

Bottom line – industry experience reports that a centralized drop off recycle centre, particularly with extensive sorting and limited hours of operation, is the least convenient recycling method.

Diversion rate

Let’s now take a closer look at the recycle diversion rate being achieved by the Centre.

The City of Calgary estimates that each household contributes about 200 kilograms of recyclables per year. Applying that to just Turner Valley and Black Diamond households suggests that the Centre should be handling 425,000 kilograms per year (not counting any businesses or any contribution from residents or businesses of the MD of Foothills).

Doing the math, that would be handling about 1,800 kilograms each day that the facility is open. This factors down to over 200 kilograms per working hour. If each person that visits drops off 5 kilograms each visit, that would mean that on average more than 40 persons per hour would be in the facility sorting their materials. Anyone who has seen the Centre in operation would have to conclude that we are falling well short of these numbers. Further, the Centre as designed could not handle anywhere near the available amount.

One of our first requests to the town administration for data to support this story reported that the facility was handling 900,000 kilograms per year, or about double the theoretical available amount. This number was later refuted by a report to council that suggested the actual number for 2017 was 204,800 kilograms plus 14,000 kilograms of glass. Even recycling the reported total of 218,000 kilograms per year would make the Centre a busy place with on average more than 20 people per hour dropping off and sorting. Consider dropping by the Centre to see for yourself if this number makes sense.

Regarding the diversion goals for glass specifically, when the Oilfields Recycle Facility Update report was presented to council, it was stated in public that the glass was being sent to the Regional Landfill site south of Okotoks where it was being stockpiled. This was later proven to be false. Glass is being sent directly to the landfill and is being buried along with all other refuse. Why was this not reported to citizens when the practice started? An argument was put forward that not informing the citizens would cause them to continue the glass recycling habit until such time as a market might be found for glass. Personally, I find this reason to be very annoying since it treats me as a person who is unable to think for himself. Also, it doesn’t consider the carbon footprint impact on the environment of cleaning the glass and transporting it to the Centre in a personal vehicle. Then we must pay for additional trucking to take the cleaned glass to landfill. An effective and ethical recycle provider would inform customers when any specific materials could not be recycled and were being sent to landfill. Certainly, at this time there is no reason for any citizen to recycle glass through the facility. Please save the environment and save ratepayer money and put your uncleaned glass containers directly into your refuse bins for weekly pickup.

What is diversion?

Fully successful diversion ensures that the life of the recycled materials is extended. Extending the life of materials should be the goal, not simple diversion. Unless we can be assured that the materials have been given an extended life, we are not really recycling, we are practicing “feel good” recycling. We feel better that we have a recycling service and shut our eyes as to how effective it really is.

So, we need to look more closely at what is meant by diversion. In our current system, the first step of diversion is to separate recyclable materials in our own homes, clean them and store them for later transport to the Centre. Some people believe that not putting the materials into the garbage bin is diversion from landfill, however this is not necessarily the case.

The next step of diversion is the Centre where materials separated by hand are baled for transport to a Calgary company that handles the baled materials. When the contracted trucker picks up the material at the Centre, diversion is also achieved. This diversion only works if the trucks do not go to landfill, as they are now doing for glass.

If the trucker transports the materials to a recycle processing centre rather than landfill, that is another step in diversion. In our case Capital Paper in Calgary is responsible for picking up baled materials at the Centre. Glass is picked up separately and goes directly into landfill. In order to achieve diversion, Capital Paper must find markets for recycled materials. If they find markets, they have provided the service we want and think we are getting. If they do not find markets, recycling has failed. Capital Paper has admitted that they do send material to landfill when they are unable to find a market. How much are they sending to landfill is still an outstanding question.

Here is where our story gets hazy due to our inability to get the facts. An email from town administration stated:

“Our staff have confirmed with Capital Paper that there is always a certain volume of material that will need to go to landfill. This is mostly due to contamination and currently a lack of marketability (plastics especially), and is common in every municipality (to varying degrees).”

This statement makes clear the fact that Capital Paper sends plastics to landfill due to lack of markets. We made repeated attempts to get the actual numbers for amounts that were sent to the landfill, but were not provided any details. The response to our most recent request was another email from town administration that contradicted the previous email by stating:

“No TV Plastic has been sent to the landfill.”

So how can Capital Paper state that they do send plastics to landfill when there is no market, and yet state that none of those plastics originated in Turner Valley? This must mean that their sorting and storage system tracks all materials according to source. This is highly doubtful, but if Capital Paper is willing to provide proof, we will gladly publish it.

In the meantime, administration does not have any interest in pushing Capital Paper to come clean regarding the actual amounts of each class of material that they send to landfill. This should be an essential metric in performance reporting, and should be a major influence in the selection of a recycle partner. To have administration turn a blind eye to the end goal of extended life of recycle materials is not acceptable.

It is easy to understand Capital Paper’s reluctance to provide this information. Most people choose to believe they do extend recycled material life for all but contaminated materials. We must conclude that the administration is not really interested in real recycling. Rather they seem to be focused on the operation of the Centre, and are content with “feel good” recycling.

Is the current system effective?

The big question that is the subject of this article can be answered in a few points.

  1. Should we be paying anything at all for a recycling service that is not meeting acceptable diversion rate goals considering the total available amount of recyclables?

If a reasonable recycle rate is not being achieved, then we are simply supporting a “feel good” service. The numbers we have assembled indicate that the current system is achieving far less than 50% at the first step of diversion. Note to administration – the actual recycle rate should in fact be an ongoing metric provided by the Centre so citizens can see the true value.

Council members have been talking for years about replacing the Centre with a form of curbside recycling, but there seems to be an awful amount of “foot-dragging” that is preventing any real progress. As long as “feel good” recycling is good enough, this will continue. There is a lot of comfort and inertia trying to keep the Centre operating as is.

Experience in other jurisdictions suggests that a centralized drop off recycling centre like ours results in low levels of recycling. There is also the issue of a larger carbon footprint resulting from each person driving their own vehicle to the central facility versus having a specialized vehicle do curbside pickup.

There is ample research on recycling effectiveness that leads to decisions taken by cities like Calgary and Okotoks to implement so called “single stream curbside pickup” wherein all recyclable materials are placed in a single bin for periodic pickup. These mixed materials are then sorted for the various markets in a processing center.

  1. Should we be paying anything at all for a recycling service that does not achieve the goal of extending the life of recycle materials?

With so many links in the diversion chain, and an unwillingness for town administration to demand meaningful landfill reports from Capital Paper we are left not knowing how effective the service really is. Over the course of writing this report, we have had many interactions with recycle industry insiders. Some recycling service providers have been known to charge a fee for pickup, and then simply truck the material to landfill. This is a lot easier than finding companies that can be trusted to truly extend the life of the materials.

In fact, of the three major recycling companies in the Calgary region, only one has a stated policy of not sending any materials to landfill due to lack of markets. That company is NOT Capital Paper, our current provider. The third major provider in fact operates their own landfill. So it is very important that we select a recycling provider that is committed to our goals.

Unless you are content with “feel good” recycling, citizens should demand that administration be open and accountable in their selection of an ethical and honest recycle provider. Note to administration – the amount that is sent to landfill for any reason, and at every diversion step including at Capital Paper processing should be an ongoing metric provided by the Centre .

  1. Are we getting the best value for money for the current recycling service?

Eliminating the recycling center would definitely result in future cost savings to Turner Valley citizens. As reported, there are significant and increasing ongoing costs not only for the 2 full time equivalent employees, but also for facility and equipment upkeep including six different balers that are used to compact and bind the various materials. The capital costs should also be factored into the overall cost statement.

Curbside pickup by private recycling companies, like those that are already providing recycling services to our town are typically more effective than a central site. Proposals from these companies could easily be obtained.

Perhaps a solution involving the Cascades Recovery Inc. recycling center in Calgary could be worked out with private curbside service providers. Cascades is the only major company that has a policy of not sending any recyclable materials to landfill.

Council needs to pressure administration to explore other recycling options that are more effective in achieving diversion goals. The direction should ensure that the exploration is immediate, focused, and short term.

An extensive study that could be consulted for relevant data was completed in March of 2017 for MD of Foothills No. 31, Town of Black Diamond, Town of High River, Town of Nanton, Town of Okotoks and Town of Turner Valley. There is no need to spend a lot of time doing basic research into the issue.

Are the citizens who are paying for a private recycling service getting value for their recycling fees paid to the town? Likely most would prefer to not pay for a service they are not using, and not pay the mandatory fee. If citizens were given the choice of either paying for a private service or paying the fee for the Center we might see more choosing of private curbside service and therefore an improvement on the overall diversion goal. Paying mandatory fees for “feel good” recycling is not acceptable.

So these are our questions. What about yours? We welcome your comments, suggestions and questions, so feel free to write a response. Ask your neighbors what they think. We will review all comments and provide updates to this story as needed.

 

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