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Timing is key on new recycling program

Tuolumne County has a case of the blue-bag blues.

Its free blue-bag recycling program, which began with optimism more than 12 years ago, has proven itself a flop.

“It’s a real fake,” said Tuolumne County Supervisor Dick Pland. “It just doesn’t work.”

Pland’s right: The plastic bags bust in compactor trucks or are broken by loaders at the transfer station, reported County Solid Waste Manager Gretchen Olsen. Recyclables then mix with ordinary trash, often get dirty, become impossible to recover and are lost to the landfill.

The bags themselves cost $30,000 a year, the Public Works staff spends many hours making sure the county’s 39 blue-bag outlets are stocked, and sometimes they run out anyway.

There are some recyclables, like cardboard and magazines, that not are accepted by the program. Then there are the customers who stuff ordinary household trash into the free blue bags to avoid costs.

Finally, reports Olsen, revenues from the sale of the recyclables are far outstripped by the costs of retrieving the aluminum, glass and plastic from the mass of trash at the Mono Village transfer center.

So, no, it’s not surprising that the county is considering getting rid of the blue-bag program. What is surprising is that this inefficient operation has survived for a dozen years without serious scrutiny.

This month’s board examination of the program was prompted by a report from Gretchen Olsen, the county’s solid waste manager since late 2007.

Olsen recommended bagging the blue bags, which was easy.

Far more difficult, particularly in these tough economic times, is coming up with an alternative that both meets state recycling requirements and doesn’t place undue burdens on customers, who now pay $20.48 a month for one-can service.

The state requires that counties recycle 50 percent of their trash, a quota Tuolumne now meets largely through commercial wood waste burned by the Pacific Ultrapower incinerator near Chinese Camp. But proposed legislation could boost the mark to 60 percent — 3 percentage points beyond what the county now recycles.

Olsen is recommending a two-cart recycling program, under which household trash and recyclables would be put in separate bins and collected by separate trucks, with the recyclables truck picking up every two weeks.

Once separated from household trash, she said, far more recyclable items could be recovered. This would include cardboard, magazines, egg cartons, computer paper and more.

The downside: Monthly pickup costs would increase by between $2.78 to $8.67, depending on how long a contract extension Waste Management is given to recoup its costs. With a six-year extension, the average monthly bill would be $29.15, and with 11 years, $23.26. 

The higher rates would be paid by all customers, even if they don’t put out recyclables.

Increased charges, said Olsen, are in line with other rural counties using two-cart systems. Pland added that hike would amount to just “pennies a day.”

But with a six-year extension, the base-rate increase would amount to more than $100 annually. Those putting out more trash, of course, would pay more.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Pland, after Chairwoman Teri Murrison brought up the impacts of a garbage rate increase at a time when most county residents are already dealing with Tuolumne Utilities District water and sewer hikes.

The answer?

A switch from blue bags is inevitable and necessary, but it must done at the lowest possible cost to customers and need not kick in until state requirements force the issue or until our economy dramatically improves. The board has directed Olsen to negotiate a lower price with Waste Management, and we wish her success.

Meanwhile, customers tired of blue bags but worrying about rate hikes might best bring their bottles and cans to Waste Management’s recycling center on Camage Avenue. Then, instead of paying at the gate, you get cash for your trash.

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