BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for January 27, 2010
$520m reported for NC rail in Thu. Obama administration announcement; will commuter rail benefit, and what about those grade crossings?

ABC 11 again raises the yard waste/garbage single streaming problem -- but how big a deal is it?

Sometimes it's hard to watch the sausage get made in local government. And sometimes, there's ample and excess reasons to call out elected officials and their appointed counterparts for mistakes.

Maybe I didn't get the memo on this one, but I'm somehow not feeling the outrage that some in the community seem to around the fact that Durham's yard waste recycling program is (still) streaming its product in to the same Virginia landfills that our garbage gets trucked to.

Perhaps I'm right in shrugging my shoulders at the "ABC 11 Investigates" story that came up yesterday, thinking it's not really that much of a big deal. Then again, maybe after five years in Durham, perhaps I'm caught up in a Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, where it's easy to get used to things that one might ought not be so docile about.

In the end, the best news may be that the days of dual-pickup becoming a single-stream disposal method look to be over, with assistant city manager Ted Voorhees telling WTVD that the yard waste program should get back to its recycling roots in a matter of a few weeks.

So just how big a deal is it that a service planned to be only briefly interrupted has stretched into a near-memory?

If there's one thing that really comes out of the ABC 11 report, it's that it's easy to find people who weren't aware of the situation at all.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mind you, I'm not one to give free passes to broadcast media sometimes for their local coverage, but kudos to ABC 11 for a balanced job on the story overall -- save for one conclusion we'll skip to later on.

Though not obvious from the transcript of the story on their web site, the video segment broadcast does include a clear mention that this has been a story kicking around for a while, and that local officials have been upfront about their challenges in reopening Durham's yard waste compost facility, shut down several years back after it ignominiously caught fire due to the heat generated from nature's own recycling.

And they also raise the City's concern at the heart of what Voorhees says was a two-year delay in the process -- a requirement raised by the state mid-stream in the re-permitting process that the City clean up its compost waste, taking any rain that happens to hit it and processing it before letting it reach Falls Lake, something other cities haven't had to deal with.

As we noted here in August 2009:

Since the embarrassing yard waste disposal pile fires a few years back, which cost the City its state yard waste disposal permit and led to some head-rolling within the administration, Durham's been trucking its yard waste out of state to a landfill in Virginia that also accepts household and other waste processed at the transfer station....

And the biggest hold-up? Believe it or not, it's dog poop.

"If we were only taking woody waste and leaves, and leaving out grass clippings, we would have been able to get our permit a while back," Valencia says.

But you know those same debates taking place over phosphorus and nitrogen running into Falls and Jordan Lake? Those nutrients are high in fertilizer -- even the canine kind -- leading to all kinds of hand-wringing with the state over how to handle the yard waste runoff.

"Out state regulator folks never came to us and said, 'Do A, B and C, and you'll get a permit,'" Valencia said, noting that back-and-forth negotiations have taken place over how to handle the nutrient load.

The somewhat ingenious solution? The yard waste disposal site will be on E. Club Blvd. near the transfer station -- and near the wastewater treatment plant.

The ground will be sloped and yard waste deposited on it, with manmade ponds at the bottom of the hills.  Rainfall will carry the runoff over the yard waste, sweeping nutrients along the grass clippings and the like and into the pond...

...from which the water will be summarily pumped into the wastewater treatment plant for processing.

Whoda' thunk it could take so much green (cash) to keep our green (clipping) safe and environmentally, well, "green?"

So, maybe we here at BCR weren't surprised since it's been out there in the public record for a while.

The real issue ABC 11 raises, though -- and it's a fairly pertinent one -- is whether the public has been misled in any way by the long delay in the program.

After all, ABC 11 notes, the trucks that come by still say "Yard Waste Recycling" on their sides. You still pay an extra fee to get your yard waste picked up. Yet your yard waste goes to the same place your garbage goes.

The station goes on to estimate that, since the program's cost exceeds its revenues by $1 million a year, it costs an average of $9 every time a yard waste customer gets a City pick-up.

So, they argue, why not just let residents throw their yard waste into the garbage cans:

Contrary to what Durham solid waste officials have said in the past, state law does not force separate collection of leaves and garbage. The law says yard waste cannot be dumped in a landfill in North Carolina. But Durham takes its yard waste to a landfill in Virginia.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It's an argument that's hard to quarrel with, intuitively. After all, if there's no yard waste service in yard waste service, and dumping is allowed, why not just throw it in the garbage?

The logic seemed to resonate with some of the men-on-the-street interviewed by ABC 11 for the report, who were surprised to know their yard waste wasn't being recycled at all right now.

Still, I'm inclined to agree with the City's logic on this one: it's environmentally preferable to recycle yard waste once we can do it again; why get people in the habit of sending yard waste to landfills?

To my mind, the City has to pay for pick-up collection of waste, be it garbage or yard waste, anyway.

And yes, at a first pass analysis, there is an extra cost in sending two sets of trucks around.

But on the flip side, once you pay the pick-up costs, you're left with the second part of the equation: disposal costs.

And while landfilling all that yard waste is a neat little solution in some ways, in the long run, I'd wager you spend a lot more on trucking waste to Virginia than you do putting it out to compost in a City facility. Even after you factor in the wastewater.

So what of the quasi-populist idea that you can save money on separate collection by just schlepping it all up to Virginia through single-stream household and yard waste pickup?

Maybe the separate collection program's costs would outweigh the extra expense of trucking yard waste to Virginia. Maybe it wouldn't.

But I don't think a simplistic calculus looking only at current collection costs is the way we figure that out.

To the mass-market viewer who saw this story unawares of the back-history, outrage is one possible reaction. (One OWD resident has already called for Solid Waste's Donald Long and Voorhees to get recycled to a landfill somewhere, professionally speaking -- a judgement I'd say far outstrips the merit of the situation.)

And as the man on the street interviews showed, there's a lot of folks without any background in the issue who'll see this as a money waster.

ABC 11 -- which, again, did a pretty decent job with this story -- does take time to raise a new issue, or at least an old issue in a new way, and to ask for scrutiny over spending.

Kudos to them for that. But I find myself hoping we can dig deeper into the real costs and savings here, to avoid a penny-wise, pound-foolish outcome.

Then again, there's a lot of outrage around Durham for years about the aftermath of the yard waste mess, and the delays in getting this restarted.

Am I stuck in Sweden on this one after all?


Matt Johnson

Let's say I was paying for a laundry service, and suddenly the company told me that if I wanted to wash my whites, I was required to get a separate laundry bag for them, and it would cost an extra $60/year. Then I find out that although a different person comes and picks up my whites on a different day, my separated whites are washed with the colors anyway! When I ask the laundry service company, they say that their whites-only washing machine is down, but they're hoping to get it working again "In a couple months." But of course I still have to pay the separation fee. I would think that this company would get fired in a heartbeat....

I didn't know anything of the history before I read the story, and even knowing the history, I feel like I've been cheated out of $60. I don't think anyone should lose their job, but "it's okay to charge you for a service we're not really providing because it will be back (maybe) in a few months" is not really an acceptable answer either.


I agree - what's the point of paying a separate fee?


lack of professionalism, lack of focus and follow through, lack of results.

If you are going to do something, do it right. This is something that Durham govt. seems to have a problem with a little too often.

Seems similar to sending streetsweepers around without a schedule, so they drive down the middle of neighborhood roads for the most part and don't really sweep the side edges and gutters of the street for the most part.

Not. very. effective.


I think everyone who has paid the separate fee for the past 2 - 3 years should get the money back - $120 to $180, whichever it should be, OR, be giving free yard waste pickup for the next 2 to 3 years. We have been charged for something that did not happen. And given a false sense of "the right thing is happening" (i.e. recycling). Bottomline. Honestly, if you've ever called the Waste Management area of the city ... none of this is surprising.


I personally would be happy if they actually picked up the yard waste (or bulky waste) when they were supposed to, regardless of its final destination. This week, after the Monday holiday 'one-day backup' on the schedule, I knew there was about a zero percent chance it would actually get picked up on time... and you know what, I was right!

And don't get me started on One Call.....


Correction: I should have said "zero percent chance it would get picked up at all".... I was still right!

Jeremy T

I had NO IDEA that I was paying an extra fee simply for "yard waste theater." I used to joke about preferring to rake my leaves into a storm drain or throw tree limbs into the trash can to avoid paying the fees.

Little did I know that that's essentially what the city was doing anyway.

I find this completely outrageous. I'm paying extra for a shoddy service with sketchy pickup that sends everything to the same place? Can somebody explain why I shouldn't be upset about that?


There seems to be some confusion about what the $60 annual fee buys. Ted Voorhees referred to this briefly in his comments, when he said something like "this is a collection fee". Although the change pre-dates my time in Durham, it seems that some years ago the city must have decided to stop picking up yard waste in regular waste collection trucks. I presume this was partly to save money, and partly to encourage composting. Then they must have created the fee-based yard waste pickup program, issuing separate bins, to give residents an alternative to doing their own composting.

If you don't like the city's program, here's a simple alternative. For the cost of a year or two's yard waste collection, you can fence off a small area of your yard with chicken wire, and put the leaves and smaller sticks straight in. It's probably less work than loading the stuff into a tall plastic bin and wheeling it out to the curb. Once a year, in the early spring, dig out the good mulch-y soil from the bottom of the pile and spread it under your bushes. If the volume of leaves is too great, just run your lawnmower over them a few times before putting the stuff in the fenced pile.

Matt Drew

@Toby: many people in Durham do not have that option, because they don't have a space that's at least 25 feet from all their neighbors, or they have dog waste in their grass clippings, or there's some other violation of our very restrictive composting rules.

We could have private businesses collecting that detritus and making char or running their own mulch/composting facilities, but you have to have a license from the county and adhere a number of regulations that essentially can only be met by existing solid waste disposal companies. For example, a business wanting to get into the solid waste field in Durham has to have existing facilities to be inspected and a balance sheet from the previous year of business showing their net worth (section 20-7 of the County Ordinances). How is a startup going to have that?

I guess Durham is just more interested in burning gas and money shipping their dog waste to Virginia than in generating local jobs, local tax revenue, and helping the environment.


I haven't been paying the $60 fee for the last two years, since my two next door neighbors have been sharing whoever has the brown cart with the annual sticker. Next year it will be my turn to pay. Many of my neighbors have been doing this to save money since we don't generate that much waste. I encourage others to do the same, or just get rid of the collection cart altogether and either compost the waste or run an old mulching lawnmower over the stuff. If you have tree branches that are larger than 3" in diameter, you can't use the cart anyway.

Todd P

Two words: mulching lawnmower

Just chop up the leaves where they fall. Problem solved.


If the citizens of Durham stage a fee revolt and demand the return of their yard waste fees, the city will just raise the other rates like water/sewer to cover the loss of cash flow. We're just paying to maintain the bureacracy of the entire waste handling system, not just for yard waste service. Do you really think the $60 fee is put in a yard waste "lockbox" just for that service alone?

I recommend people quit complaining and let it go, IF you want to continue having yard waste pickup. If not, expect more cleanup costs for drains and culverts that get clogged with leaves, which will then lead to higher rates for water/sewer or higher property taxes. Personally, I could do without the service since I do what I can to limit yard waste.


On another VERY important topic...

Has anyone had a chance to examine the "SpotCrime" crime maps on WRAL for wrong information? Just look at the Durham map from 2/2009 to today, click on "shootings", hit refresh, and mouse over some of the red targets. Take a look at the actual address of the crime and compare it to what the target is pointing to on the map. Last time I checked, three shooting occured in Henderson, Wilson, and Harnett County, but they were being counted in Durham! There were no shootings at Southpoint or Grove Park, okay?....


I still say I would prefer to pay this fee in property taxes . . . then at least the costs are deductible for me rather than just another fee that I have to chuck out and get no relief for. Plus, in a city with as high a percentage of rental properties as Durham when its done through taxes, everyone is in.

On the self composting . . . . for those of us with small yards and many trees--and therefore not much direct sunlight--composting is not a great solution. I compost my maple leaves, but that still leaves me barrels and barrels of slivery acidic oak leaves to dispose of.

OH--and here's the new fact of the week: My recycling wasn't picked up last week. I called Monday. They finally came this afternoon. According to the employee: the didn't pick it up last week because there was a car parked on the street too near the bin.

NEWS FLASH CITY: If these barrels can't be picked up automatically when there are cars parked on the street, and employees are not going to manually retrieve carts in that situation, then we need another system. There is on street parking in many neighborhoods in Durham--and the spaces often have cars parked in them. This should not be a valid reason for skipping carts.

Frank Hyman

We share the cost of the yard waste bin with a neighbor, so it costs us about 60 cents a week for someone to haul off anything we can't shred with the mower and use as mulch. We think that's a good deal.

Also, by shredding the leaves with a mower the volume is reduced by more than half, so they don't take up much space and even then for only a few weeks. We immediately pitchfork the shredded leaves into a wheelbarrow and then spread them as mulch in flower and shrub beds before the end of January. Not buying store-bought mulch and not buying those paper leaf bags saves us a bunch of money. We think that's a pretty good deal too.

Some people have suggested making the yard waste collection service 'free' by paying for it through property taxes. Sounds good, but it would mean raising about a million or so with a property tax increase. And if we can afford to raise taxes that much, would we really want to spend it on gathering leaves?--or on beefing up transit so grocery clerks can get to work, or on underwriting more Habitat for Humanity houses so stable renters can become homeowners?--or even on getting ahead of the potholes?

Frank Hyman

The comments to this entry are closed.