West Village streetscape project gets underway
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for March 19, 2009

City Council weighs swapping dumpsters for better recycling, plus new water conservation rules

City Council will get down to meat-and-potatoes issues today -- or make that, rather, water and solid waste, two of the most tangible "hard services" the municipality delivers.

On the solid waste side, department director Donald Long will today be proposing a fairly radical change to trash collection: the elimination of "stationary container collection services," or the dumpsters so commonly found at city businesses, and using the freed-up funds for an improved recycling program.

Durham took steps in the 1990s to begin charging businesses for trash pickup in dumpsters, and added recycling pick-up for businesses instead. (Recycling costs municipalities less than regular solid waste, since the cost of collection is partially off-set by the value of the resold cans, plastics and so forth.)

Even though the program has looked to recover its costs, last year's revenues came to $1.15m, against $1.8m in expenses. Since FY06, the program has run deficits of $560k-825k.

At the same time, Long's presentation claims customers are demanding improved recycling services, with the small-size of today's recycling bins listed as one issue; a pilot program with roll-to-the-curb larger recycling containers has been underway recently.

Long's proposal: to eliminate both the dumpster pickup program and the City's $2.1m annual contract with Tidewater Fibre for recycling pickup, and to transfer today's dumpster collection staff to recycling, using existing staff and previously-purchased trucks to provide every-other-week curbside recycling pick-up using 65-to-95 gallon containers.

Long projects a net half-million dollar savings from the program, along with a $1.7m reduction in Solid Waste's draw on the general fund.

Don't look for this to go without some questions possible from the business community, though, which would need to turn to outside contractors for dumpster collection services. Still, it has the possibility to be a "green" policy (estimated increase in recycling volume of 25%) while saving some "green" for the city to boot.

.....

On the water side: Although our much-dreaded drought is over -- indeed, we noted here yesterday that the last week's rains moved us out of the "abnormally dry" category altogether -- the regional effort to increase water conservation across the various systems that make up the Triangle's drinking water continues.

While some press articles in the fall mentioned here-and-there restrictions on the way for various cities in the Triangle, I can't recall seeing much that emphasized the regional nature of these changes. In the wake of the drought, water managers from the various systems in the Triangle (including Durham's, Raleigh's, Cary's, and OWASA's) met to come up with a streamlined, unified set of water use restriction levels that would form year-round conservation methods, along with a new set of drought stages that could be unified across the region.

The theory? Different cities' individual water restrictions competed for airtime and mind-share last time around, confusing citizens on when outdoor water (or wasn't) allowed and on what schedule one could use water.

Most of the other municipalities participating in the Regional Conservation Work Group from March-October 2008 considered the adoption of these unified measures in fall '08. Durham's City Council adopted a resolution backing the measures in December, but are just now getting around to the actual new ordinances.

If adopted, the following new year-round water conservation measures will apply in Durham, mirroring other cities:

  • New outdoor watering schedule: Spray irrigation (like sprinklers) allowed three days a week -- odd-numbered addresses Tue/Thu/Sat, even-numbered on Wed/Fri/Sun -- and only from 6pm to 10am. (We're not sure how the overnight hours work with the approved days, either.)
  • Hand watering or drip/bubbler systems allowed any day; so is outdoor water use for establishing new landscaping, controlling dust/soil compacting, construction/maintenance activities, etc.
  • All new irrigation systems will be required to have moisture sensors so they cease automatically if the ground is wet enough, as in rainfall situations
  • "Wasteful water use" would be prohibited according to local ordinance. In Durham, that includes use of water for landscaping or the washing of vehicles or surfaces like parking lots in any way that causes water to flow onto neighboring properties or the public right of way; it also includes failure to correct a leak, break or malfunction within 5 days of identification.

Should we find our way back into a drought, cities will also find themselves using a more constrained list of water restriction levels (Stages 1-3 plus Emergency.)

Though little hailed, the move of municipalities, including Durham, to mandatory year-round conservation is a win. After the early 2000s drought, only Cary in our region retained its year-round schedule, and found itself in better straits when the 2007-08 drought arrived as a result.

The outdoor watering restrictions proposed here actually provide a wider range of times during the week for spray irrigation, which is currently limited in Durham to Wednesdays and Saturdays. City staff postulate in their memo to Council that spreading the demand through the week should "also help to control peak demands and lessen the stress on the drinking water plants, especially during the hotter months of the year."

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Comments

Matt

Going to every-other-week curbside collection will kill any increase in volume you get by going w/ carts and single-stream.

This is a great plan, but you need to keep collection to once per week.

If the city can't do once-per-week collection at a comparable cost to the existing contractor, don't make the switch. Go to carts, but don't bring collection in-house.

If this is the plan, Durham will continue the slide backward we've seen in solid waste services the past 5 or so years.

Egon Spengler

Actually, the biweekly collection is not so bad. We are in one of the neighborhoods piloting the biweekly/cart service, and I have no complaints. In fact, I kinda like not having to lug multiple bins to the street every week.

I guess the concern might be that someone will forget to put the carts out on the proper day. So far this has not been a problem for us. Seeing your neighbors blue carts at the street is a strong clue, as is the level of recyclables in your cart (2 weeks = full).

My only concern is cart capacity - there are weeks that we have more than enough material to fill our cart. In the past, we just placed another bin at the street. Now, we sometimes hold over material for the next collection.

A bigger issue, in my opinion, is the number of "recyclable" materials that we are not allowed to recycle in Durham.

Jane W.

Our house is currently in the every two week cart collection area. We find that we have too much recycling material for every two weeks and one cart, and we definitely don't need another large blue cart in our landscape design. City officials have not asked the residents for their opinions, nor was our homeowners' association ever contacted regarding their concerns. Finding a place for three or more large carts becomes a problem in many residential areas.

Matt

Durham currently recycles 120 lbs/person/yr. The State of NC has a goal of 2 million tons by 2012. That's 2 million tons of material collected by municipal recycling programs by 2012.

For Durham to get to their share of this goal, we need to bump the per capita recovery up to 320 lbs/yr. We'll do that by going to carts and moving to single-stream collection. I think the comments by the folks doing the pilot is great feedback, and shows that 1x/week collection is needed - even with larger capacity carts.

As we move to this new system there will be more freedom to expand the range of materials accepted...which is pretty broad already.

And don't get me started on yard waste.

Frank Hyman

Glad to see the city staff proposing getting out of the commercial dumpster collection biz. I engineered just that kind of program back in the 90's and even had a unanimous council voting for it. It freed up about $1 million dollars that we put into DATA. Of course when a handful of business people complained about it (on principle, not because of the additional cost, which was pretty modest) a majority of council members caved. But since the budget was already passed with no money for dumpster pickup, the best they could do was the present system--charging for dumpster pickup, but at a lower rate than a private company would charge. Still a good deal at the time for the city and the environment--cardboard recycling jumped by 50% in a few months and doubled after more than a year. If the present system is costing the city money, it's because the manager or the council hasn't been willing to charge for the actual cost, as we did in the 90's. Can't imagine any good reason for that. Hopefully the council will back dropping the pickup entirely. There is no good reason for city government to do something that the private sector can do, when citizens need their tax dollars spent on streets, housing, transit, etc. And dropping the once a week recycling pickup for neighborhoods--that would be a real mistake.

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