Curbside recycling always has been a money-loser for the city of Waco and most other municipalities. Now the service is more popular than ever, but also more expensive than ever because of increasing collection costs and a bear market for recyclables.
Those market realities are causing the city to change its recycling strategy in the short term, and to consider a radical alternative to curbside recycling in the long term.
Starting Dec. 31, the city will offer residential curbside recycling on alternating weeks instead of sending recycling trucks to every home every week. The city is preparing for the change by offering to replace residents’ 35-gallon blue recycling carts with 95-gallon recycling carts.
It also is offering larger green recycling carts for yard waste, which will be picked up on weeks when the blue carts are not collected.
City officials say the recycling rate already has increased as people take advantage of the roomier carts and the city’s education efforts bring the service to more people’s attention.
“Based on the numbers we’re already seeing, we know there’s going to be an increase in the
participation rate as well as tonnage,” said Chuck Dowdell, solid waste director.
Already, 28.5 percent of Waco customers participate in curbside recycling, up from 18 percent in 2000, as the program was beginning. Curbside collection last year diverted about 2,619 tons from the landfill, which is estimated to have only 12 to 14 years left on its life.
But in the longer term, the city is pursuing an alternative that could end curbside recycling as Waco has known it.
Waco City Council last month agreed to seek private proposals for a “waste-to-energy” plant at Waco Regional Landfill that would process the entire waste stream and reclaim almost everything.
Metals could be separated on-site and sold for scrap. Organic waste such as food, brush and paper could be converted to fuel — gas, liquid or solid, depending on the technology used. Plastics also could be recycled or turned into fuel.
Dowdell estimates the energy now going into the Waco landfill has enough potential to supply power to 10,000 to 15,000 homes. But the fuel also could be turned into other products, such as plastics, fertilizers or carbon black.
City Manager Larry Groth said he hopes a private operator could build and operate such a plant with little or no subsidy from the city.
“That’s the solution I’ve been wanting the whole time,” Groth said. “That way, everybody becomes a recycler.”
City officials say it may be several months before the request for proposals is ready to send out. City officials went through a similar process in 2010 but got only one bidder, who proposed a plant that would turn organic material into various gases and mine the waste stream for metals and glass. City officials rejected the bid, saying the bidder didn’t have the experience or capitalization they were looking for.
This time, the city will be more flexible in its specifications and will consider a variety of different technologies. But city officials said they’re not considering a traditional incinerator.
Dowdell said there are about 15 well-capitalized businesses providing cutting-edge waste-to-energy services, and projects are under way in Mississippi, California and a few other places around the country.
“This is not pie in the sky,” Dowdell said. “It’s real-world stuff.”
Driving the bid process and the recycling changes is simple economics. As in most cities, curbside recycling always has been a money-loser for Waco.
But city officials say increased fuel and equipment costs, combined with a drop in demand for recyclables, have left them no choice but to cut costs or raise rates.
In the past year, the recycling program cost $980,000, accounting for $2.33 of the typical monthly residential bill of $14.26.
Under the city’s curbside recycling program, customers can throw paper, cardboard, metals and plastic into a single container. Those materials are taken to Sunbright Paper Recycling, where workers sort and pack the materials to be shipped to recycling mills.
In the past, Sunbright has paid the city a small amount for its recyclables, but that fee has gone away because of the drop in waste paper prices worldwide that began with the 2008 recession.
Sunbright used to send a blend of office paper and newsprint to a large recycling mill in Arizona to be turned into a high-quality newsprint, but that mill closed this year, Sunbright sales representative Adam Socket said.
Sunbright now is selling to other mills, but transport and processing costs leave very little profit in paper, he said. On the other hand, the plastics market is getting stronger and is more profitable, Socket said.
Despite the overall glum news for the recycling industry, city officials say they want Waco to continue to recycle more.
Already, Waco’s curbside collection rate is 520 pounds per household per year, compared with 439 pounds in North Texas and 403 nationwide.
Also, 141 businesses and 25 schools participate in 3city recycling programs.
The city of Waco solid waste department has held open houses during the past couple of months to educate people about the new recycling schedule and the larger carts.
“There was a renewed interest when we did that,” said Anna Dunbar, the city’s recycling and public outreach administrator. “It’s like a second grand opening. When we did our open houses, people would say, ‘I guess I should do that,’ or ‘I didn’t know you were doing other stuff besides paper.’ ”