Commissioners Consider Curbside Recycling and Solid Waste (again)

At Tuesday night's Board of County Commissioner's meeting, the commissioners will vote to create a multi-jurisdictional, time-restricted Solid Waste Advisory Group (SWAG). This 12-member advisory group will consist of 2 representatives from each of the 4 local governments, 2 from UNC, and 2 citizens, and will be tasked with defining the nature, scope, and timing of solid waste issues including, but not limited to: 
  • an interlocal agreement on solid waste;
  • reducing solid waste that is not recycled;
  • recycling opportunities and services;
  • siting a transfer station or landfill within the county;
  • supporting public education on solid waste issues;
  • construction and demolition waste;
  • assuring long-term partnership of the entities involved through an interlocal agreement on waste handling and disposal;
  • addressing equitable funding and mechanisms for establishing fees and making future joint decisions;
  • future use of closed landfill sites;
  • investigation of partnership possibilities involving neighboring jurisdictions;
  • feasibility of innovative and cost-effective, environmentally-sound methods of disposal of solid waste beyond burial;
  • potential inclusion of biosolids in long-range disposal plans;
  • emergency storm debris planning; and
  • treatment of communities impacted by siting of any facilities either within Orange County or beyond its borders to receive shipments of waste.

How did we get to this point? I've had a hard time documenting the answer to that question but here's what I think I know. I welcome any corrections/additional details. 

The town of Chapel Hill built the landfill on Rogers Road back in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, the town initiated a drop-off recycling program and a public education program, and a few years later created a Waste Reduction Task Force that eventually led to the curbside recycling program. Sometime in the late 1990s, operational control of the landfill and the recycling program, as well as all public communications and outreach responsibilities, transferred to the county. A landfill-owners group was created to handle policy decisions.

By the time I moved back here in 2002, Chapel Hill and Carrboro and a surrounding portion of the county had a well-functioning curbside recycling program. The urban areas were served by a commercial contractor that the county managed, and the county areas were served by the county staff. Sometime in the 1990s, the convenience centers were created and became a vital service for rural residents. Additionally, recycling services expanded to include construction and waste, white goods, tires, electronics and others. Initially, the county services were paid for through tipping fees received at the landfill. Urban recycling was paid, in part, through municipal taxes (I think).

In 2006, the county implemented a tiered-fee structure, called the 3R fee, to help pay for convenience centers, recycling, administration, and outreach. The 3-tiered fee included a 1) basic services fee that everyone paid, 2) a recycling fee assessed by where you lived (urban, rural, multifamily), and 3) a convenience center fee that like recycling was assessed according to where you lived (urban, rural, multifamily). (The convenience center fee was added in 2012.)

Then a group of rural citizens decided they didn't want to pay the recycling fee, claiming they shouldn't have to pay for a service they didn't or couldn't use due to long-driveways or the fact they already had to take their trash to a convenience center and could take their recycling at the same time. That group took their concerns to then-Manager Clifton and got his and the county lawyer's support. The commissioners were advised that citizens could potentially sue the county, and if they won, the county would have to refund all those collected fees because, while municipalities have the authority from the North Carolina legislature to levy solid waste fees, counties do not. 

Since that time, the county has been paying for the curbside/roadside service through the solid waste reserve fund while seeking a permanent solution for the recycling fee for the unincorporated areas. 

The solid waste reserve fund was built up over the years when the landfill was open and generating tipping fees for the purpose of closing it-it will have to be monitor for 30 years against leakage and other environmental problems. Without new tipping fees, the county will have to find some way to reimburse the fund. Where those funds will come from is unknown at this time.

How do we pay for recycling? Another murky issue. The 3R fees paid for part of it, as does the sale of collected waste. Collected materials are sold on the open market so the prices fluctuate wildly from year to year. The Solid Waste department also depended on the landfill tipping fees to supplement the recycling/convenience center budget. When the landfill closed earlier than anticipated, a budget shortfall was created. The county commissioners knew this would happen but determined that it would be better to raise the 3R fees gradually. 

Where are we now? In a mess. The SWAG is going to untangle the mess and hopefully put us back on track. 

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7 Comments

Mark Marcoplos's picture

Guaranteed to waste time & money

This is a huge mistake. There is no way that this long menu of issues can be dealt with efficiently by a committee. Most of the issues on this list would take months for a committee to discuss. Plus, we don't need a committee for most of these items. We have a very knowledgeable staff that knows a good answer to almost all of these questions. It's past time to take action and implement what we know. This is yet another procrastination in a long line of procrastinations by our commissioners. The very first thing we need to do is site a transfer station & a recycling station next to the Chapel Hill Operations Center. This will allow us to begin saving over $1million per year on extra costs to ship our waste to two transfer stations in Durham County. That's real money and we need to stop the bleeding. Additionally we would greatly reduce pollution by dramatically shortening those truck trips. It is one immediate contribution we can make toward combatting climate change.This will also simplify recycling pick-up because then both household waste and recycling can be picked up and taken to the same transfer facility. The commissioners need to finally have the political will to get this done. It is the major foundation for getting our solid waste handling under control. Then we can move on systematically to resolve the other issues.Prediction:  If this new SWAG is created, the mess will get messier, the months will slip away with little actual action, and we'll continue to burn money & fuel as our trucks log in 200 miles per day hauling waste to Durham.  

Not just a county decision

I don't disagree with you Mark but the fact is Chapel Hill wants to build the transfer station independently from the county. Something has to be done to create a partnership between the county and the towns; no one entity in the county creates enough trash to make a transfer station viable without such a partnership. I think that's what the commissioners are hoping will come out of this committee. If the committee members are smart, they will assign most of these topics to staff using the clout of the committee to break through the existing barriers. Isn't that what happened with Rogers Road?

Mark Marcoplos's picture

Local govts. are poised to collaborate

My strong sense from campaigning on this issue and speaking with many local leaders is that there are enough local leaders who understand the substantial benefits of collaborating on a transfer staion siting that it can be done. We don't need a committee to gum on it. Let's get started. There's nothing overly complicated to decide.   

SWAG committee created

The BOCC just voted (4-3) to create the SWAG committee. They will appoint their representatives on June 17 and ask the towns to make their appointments before their summer breaks. The original proposal was amended to increase citizen participation from 2 to 5, appointed by the BOCC ASAP. The committee will be appointed for 1 year and they are tasked with prioritizing among the list on the agenda. They then voted to appoint one of the commissioners as chair of the committee.

Paying for rural recycling

The commissioners voted to pay for the rural recycling program using the solid waste unrestricted funds (basically a slush fund) until the SWAG committee can meet and address a permanent payment method.

Paying for recycling

Last night at the Chapel Hill Town Council special work session, council members expressed their unhappiness (outrage as it was told to me) that the BOCC had voted to pay for only the rural recycling program using the solid waste reserve fund. The town council felt the urban areas were being treated unfairly by having to charge their residents an additional fee for the service (remember--we are in this mess because the legislature allows the towns to charge a fee for solid waste but not the county). So tonight, the BoCC took the issue back up at their budget work session and agreed to pay for all curbside recycling in the county through the reserve funds. After that payment, the reserve fund will have only about $500,000 left to cover any unexpected problems over the next several years since there is no source of replenishment for it. It was built up over the years through landfill tipping fees that are no longer being collected. After the vote to use the reserves to fund rural and urban programs, the recommendation was made by Penny Rich to finding a new pathway for building that fund back up (paid for by both the county and the municipalities) to the SWAG charter.We have a recycling program that I think a large portion of urban and rural residents are proud of, so how did it become so contentious?  At Tuesday night's meeting, Mark Dorosin expressed his concern with recent attempts to pigeonhole the payment for every government service according to who uses the service/benefits from it. That's where we are with the solid waste issue. We can't pay for rural recycling with reserve funds because it's inequitable to the urban areas (which completely ignores the fact that a large portion of the rural residents don't have the option of curbside collection); the people with long driveways don't want to pay for recycling because they don't use the service; urban residents don't want to pay for convenience centers because they don't use them that often. I agree with Mark. It's got to stop. If the SWAG achieves nothing except that, I will consider it a success.