Trash talk

The cavernous transfer station on Commercial Row, now used by residents to dispose of extra trash, is being retooled for the new system.

The cavernous transfer station on Commercial Row, now used by residents to dispose of extra trash, is being retooled for the new system.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Garbage In, Garbage Out:How it will Work

People in the Truckee Meadows have been vaguely aware that there is a change coming in garbage collection, but not in great detail. For residents, there is still time yet. For businesses, the rubber hits the road next month.

As information has drifted out, not everyone has been happy. One resident recently sent an irate note to Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus, who was not elected until the new system was adopted. She had already been asking some questions herself, not just about the new system—called “single stream”—but also about the concept of recycling and whether it works the way it should.

Single stream will reduce the sorting residents must do of their garbage. They must still make the fundamental division of recyclable and non-recyclable, but they won’t have to break it down further. It’s important to know something about how it’s going to work, because there can be both financial cost and gain for residents. They can gain by how well they sort. On the other hand, if they don’t choose their own trash bins (from among four choices), they will automatically receive the most expensive ones.

So far, the new system has been adopted by Reno. Sparks and Washoe County are not participating.

To explain what is going to happen, we interviewed city environmental services administrator Jason Geddes, a former University of Nevada, Reno, student body president and state legislator who currently also chairs the Nevada Board of Regents.

Tell me about the new system.

Jason Geddes, the city’s environmental services administrator, has a large part of the job of educating residents about the new trash system.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Since 1992, we’ve had a recycling program, and it’s been the yellow bin/green bin that you put out next to your garbage can. … In one bin, you put glass, and in the other bin, you put plastic and metal. What’s coming is called single-stream recycling, so you’ll have two closing bins that look like a regular garbage can—you know, the big green garbage cans?


And then, you pick your sizes of your garbage cans, and there’s four different options there. But you’ll have one for garbage and one for all your recyclables. So it’ll be metals, plastic, glass, your paper can go in there, newspaper, cardboard. And the plastics previously have only been what’s called plastic 1 or 2, which are bottles. … The different plastics have numbers. And now, it’s plastics 1 through 7, which means, you know—butter dishes, yogurt cups … food containers. So all of your recyclables go into one [trash can] and then all [the rest] of your garbage go into another and then it’s all in the containerized wheel carts with automated pick-up trucks.

Why? What was wrong with the existing system?

There was a demand for recycling. There was interest brought to the city council from citizens and also from the commercial recycling group. Back in 2007, a commercial recycling group formed that had about—that the City of Reno and Airport Authority headed up and there were about 53 commercial entities who were a part of it that wanted greater recycling options. And the combination of those two led the City of Sparks, Washoe County, and City of Reno to meet with Waste Management [the Houston conglomerate that has a monopoly on trash collection in the Truckee Meadows] basically over the last five years to come up with a proposal on how to implement single-stream recycling. And then last September there was finally a proposal that went to council in October and November of last year, and they approved it.

You said there was a demand for recycling. But the city already had recycling. What was wrong with the old system?

The inability to recycle all those other plastics and the newspapers and cardboard and chipboard. So there was an interest in being able to get more recyclables into the stream. There was also issues with litter because the yellow bin/green bin, whenever the wind blows, the plastic bottles and aluminum cans would blow around the streets. So there was a litter issue with that system.

I always saw newspapers in those colored bins. Weren’t they already being recycled?

They could be recycled if you put the newspaper in paper bags next to the bins. They would pick those up and do it. But with that sort of system, each truck basically needed to have three bins, one for the paper, one for the glass, and one for the aluminum and plastic. So whenever any one of the three would fill up, they would have to take it back to the station, empty it and come back out. Whereas with the single-stream, they can just empty all the recyclables into one truck and then sort it.

Was an unwillingness of people to sort a factor in going to the new system?

It was partially, yes. Back in ’07 when the residential push came in, the City of Reno and Waste Management sponsored a pilot program up in old northwest off King’s Row. We did 800 homes for four months to see how this program would work, and the participation rate in that neighborhood went from over 40 percent to over 80 percent. It more than doubled. And then the amount of recyclables that people recycled more than tripled. So they went from over 500 pounds per route to over 1,700 pounds per route.

When you go to the new system and you don’t have the high level of awareness of a pilot program and the months and years pass, do you think that people will still participate at that level rather than throwing stuff in the one bin?

I think they will. You know, we consulted with the Environmental Protection Agency on how to craft the new program. And what you see in the new program is what’s called a pay-as-you-throw program. So when you go and you select your options, the options are set up so that your garbage can is smaller than your recycling can, unless you want to pay a higher rate and then you can get a bigger garbage can—or same sized as your recycling can. So there’s actually incentive for people to recycle more. And the more they recycle, the less they can pay through the program. So the hope is that once it gets rolled out and going and people, after a year or so, people see how much they’re able to recycle versus what they throw away, they can actually downsize their bins and pay less for what they’re throwing in the garbage.

When does the new system go in?

City Council member Jenny Brekhus likes to ask basic questions about city services.

Photo By Dennis Myers

It was approved in October. The commercial side will start rolling out in July and then all the residents will get theirs in the fall. It needs to be in place by November 7.

I heard that there was some construction involved by Waste Management.

Yes. Their old facility on Greg Street was designed for the source-separated bins and bags system and to accommodate the single-stream system, they need to have a new sorting rack and new trucks. And what they’re doing is they’re building what they’re calling an eco-center where they’re expanding the transfer station on Commercial Row. And then they will take in all of the single-stream recycling and sort it there, eventually, and then they’ll pull out all the recyclables there as opposed to people sorting it. And at that eco-center they’ll also expand it so that people can drop off light bulbs, e-waste, household chemicals—you know, your pesticides and paints and that sort of thing. So they’re expanding to have one drop-off point.

If some of the burden of sorting is going to shift from the consumer to the company, I have to assume that the price and the cost is going to go up.

There is a price increase in there, but they will also be getting an increased volume if they have more recyclables. So what the pricing options are—and you can actually see it if you go to our website. There’s four different pricing options, plus a senior rate. [See box.] And if you go to what’s considered the base rate, which is a 64 gallon garbage can and a 96-gallon recycling can, it’s 61 cents per month per household increase. It you go to the larger garbage can, it’s greater. Or if you downsize to a smaller garbage can, it’s less.

Looking at something broader, when stuff is collected here to be recycled, what happens to it? I had a member of the council mention China to me.

Probably Councilmember Brekhus. It’s basically a commodity market, and since it is Waste Management, once they sort it, they actually handle all of their commodity sales out of their corporate office in Houston. So they will sort it and then, depending on where they’re getting the best price, that’s where they ship it. Currently, I think a lot of the cardboard in the country is going over to China. Plastics are China, U.S., Europe. Metals go all over the place. But it’s really where the best price they get it is.

She was concerned whether anybody runs the numbers to find out if shipping this stuff to China uses up more resources than just taking it to the landfill in Lockwood. Has anybody done that kind of work?

I don’t think we did one specifically for this project, but I have seen studies like that before, but not specific to Lockwood. We did look at other things, such as the trucks we are switching to are natural gas powered trucks as opposed to the diesel, which will lower their carbon footprint from that perspective. And having the single stream load versus the multi-bin trucks that I mentioned, allows them to have fewer routes on the road so that they don’t have to travel as much. So there is a carbon footprint decrease from the services we currently have to what we’re going to, but I don’t think there was a full life cycle out to going to China or raw commodities.

Is the Commercial Row facility available while the construction’s going on?

Yes, it will be. What they’re doing is, they bought the new sorting system. They’re putting it over at Greg Street, which is their current recycling facility, while they construct the eco-center at Commercial. But the transfer station as it exists will still be operable while they’re doing construction. … Two of the new components of the new program—one is, right now you are allowed to do unlimited—or, not unlimited, but you can do up to seven bags or extra [garbage] cans per week. And that program goes away, so that everybody will be on mandatory card service.

I’m not sure what you’re saying there.

Right now, every house can put out extra bags of garbage every week. And that goes away because they’re going to an automated truck. So people will have stickers for extra bags per week in the system. But the other changes—right now, they’ve got that once a quarter, you can go to the transfer station for free? In the new program, any resident can go to the transfer station four times a year whenever they want—any day of the week, any time of the day they want. As long as they’re a customer in good standing, they can just go there and drop off a truck load of garbage.

How does the thing with the stickers work?

From the Waste Management website, this is the selection from which residents can choose their next trash bins.

Photo By

What they’ll do is, you’ll no longer be able to put out the extra bags. You’ll be limited to the number of bags you can put out per year. They’ll basically mail you out 20 stickers and with the 20 stickers you get, you can put out 20 extra items per year—a bag, a garbage can, a big box of Christmas wrappings, whatever. And once you use up those 20 stickers you have to buy more.

Do stickers carry over into the next year?

Yes. You just get 20 every year.

I was looking at the visuals of the different size bins that customers can order. How do people know? I know what the one I have now looks like, but how do I know which of those on paper would be best for me?

Very good question. I’m not entirely sure. They’ve put together a little video that shows the bins and they’ve got the actual different size bins that they took out to Earth Day and we took up to the university and taking around to Kiwanis and Rotary and public meetings. And we’ll start doing PSAs [broadcast public service announcements] as it gets closer. But unless, I guess—unless you really knew what you have, I’m not sure.

And if you pick wrong, you know, if you pick one that you end up filling a third full every week, can you turn it in and get a different one?

Yes. You can change it any time. I think it’s just a month’s notice. … And they’re actually tracking everything currently as it comes in, and about half the people are choosing the 96/96, which the bins people normally have are 96.

People are picking them now?

Yes, they opened up a website. … You can actually click which service option you want now.

Are they actually taking the bins to homes?

They will, once they roll it out.

But that’s not until about October, right?

Yes, September, October, November—somewhere in there. But you can go in, pick your option. And if you end up not picking an option before they roll it out, you’ll default to the 96/96, and then you can change it any time. They’re trying to get a sense as to how many of each size bin to order and they’ve got—I think 3,000 people have signed up already.

So you are planning public education?

Yes. There’s the website, they’ve done two bill inserts, there’ll be another bill insert July 1, another one September 1, and then there will be radio/TV PSAs promoting the program as we get closer and showing people what to put in what bins and that sort of thing.

And is it primarily Waste Management doing it, not the city?

Primarily, yes. We’re partnered with them so we’ll be doing some PSAs through our channel, the government channel. [City publicist] Sharon Spangler here is working on some. And then we’ve been working on press releases with them as well. But the content will be primarily theirs.