Kathy Marshall: HWMA’s Ready-Fire-Aim Approach To Recycling – June 7, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Over the years I have had very mixed feelings about the City of Arcata’s on-going and active support of the Arcata Community Recycling Center (ACRC). At times I have been upset that the ACRC seemed to continually need that support. I have asked myself why they couldn’t stand up on their own, in spite of sudden downturns in the recycling market. At other times I have been so grateful that the city invested itself and its resources into an organization that clearly had many and varied benefits to the community. Now, my waffling on the issue is over.

It is time that the entire community recognize the value of the ACRC and oppose the HWMA’s impending decision to outsource Humboldt County’s recycling.

Prior to attending HWMA’s May meeting I had been giving the whole issue a lot of thought. One day it occurred to me that the whole move is being publicly rationalized by a cost savings of $500,000 per year. Here’s what that amounts to. The HWMA says it serves 80,000 to 90,000 customers. For my purpose I used the lower number to calculate the actual yearly savings to their customers. $500,000 divided by 80,000 customers brings a savings of $6.25 per customer per YEAR. Let me illustrate what that savings means.

$6.25 is less than the cost of one pack of cigarettes. It is less than a six-pack of locally brewed beer. $6.25 is less than one movie ticket. It is less than one large movie theater popcorn and drink. It is less than a specialty coffee drink and a goodie from any coffee shop in the county.

It is one moderately priced bottle of wine or one glass of inexpensive wine at a restaurant with dinner. $6.25 is the cost of one drink with decent liquor at a bar, or two drinks made with well liquor. It is the equivalent of a small bottle of alcohol from the liquor store. It is three days per year of my very inexpensive cell phone plan and about 10 days worth of my Netflix account. All of that translates into giving up one luxury indulgence ONCE per year. For a moviegoer it means no popcorn once a year. For a pack-a-day cigarette smoker it means one less cigarette a day for about 15 days. For a drinker of local beer it means giving up less than one six-pack of beer per year. For anyone who goes to a bar, either frequently or even occasionally, it means forgoing one or two drinks a year.

I have put this in terms of luxury items to illustrate that the savings wouldn’t impact the costs of daily living for most people, because everyone has at least one small vice/luxury that can be skipped once a year.

And for those who would be loath to give up anything, or who would point to a loss of local revenue resulting from any reduced local spending, think in terms of actual cost. The actual cost of keeping our recycling, at the current rates we pay is .017 percent – less than two cents per day.

The politicians who are currently on the HWMA board and some who have served in the past keep citing these rate savings. But, I would happily forego one small luxury item per year, or pay my .017 cents per day, to keep the ACRC and its 37 employees active in our community.

When I attended the HWMA’s May meeting I also learned a number of upsetting things; the most appalling was the revelation that one HWMA boardmember hadn’t even read the Request for Proposal before voting in favor of it. That strikes me as incredibly unethical and a dereliction of duty. That alone should be enough to derail the entire process. I wonder how much research on the trends in recycling that individual did before voting? How knowledgeable was he about the full consequences of outsourcing our recycling and eliminating those 37 jobs?

I also learned that none of the waste systems set up by participating HWMA municipalities or agencies are designed for single-stream recycling, which is what the Willits company does. Our systems, the trucks and bins, have all been designed as dual-stream systems. Which brings up the question of the potential cost of converting equipment from dual- to single-stream.

A huge demerit for single-stream recycling is that the end product is dirty. The only companies that buy single-stream recycled paper are in China, so not only would this plan eliminate jobs right here in Humboldt County, it could impact the job status of paper mill workers in other areas of the United States. US companies don’t buy single-stream recycled paper because the resulting paper is of an inferior quality and difficult to sell. In fact, even the Chinese are reconsidering their approach to recycled paper production and could begin to accept only dual-stream recycled products sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Apparently the HWMA also does not have a strategic plan. I find that irresponsible. That agency should have been operating with a strategic plan since it formed. A strategic plan guides development over time. It helps to define goals and discrete steps to achieve those goals. A strategic plan helps guide appropriate and rational decisions during market downturns, rather than knee-jerk decisions like their current plan.

The HWMA also suffers from frequent turnover in its representation. In fact at a recent meeting, most of the representatives were the designated alternates, rather than the more educated regulars. I don’t know of a single other governmental entity that uses alternates; not the US congress; not state government; not our board of supervisors; not our city councils or city committees or commissions; not our school boards. Really folks, are you sure it’s okay with you that alternates can make huge important decisions for our community? That’s not okay with me.

My recommendation to the HWMA is that they postpone any decision for at least another year, possibly two. During that time they should eliminate alternates, develop a strategic plan along with a mission statement that reflects the conservation and local economic development commitment of the surrounding community, work closely with recycling experts in our community and continue to negotiate with the ACRC about rates and/or the possibility of purchasing the new ACRC facility to create a local, integrated waste management system.

There is a need, and clearly community concern, that our local waste and recycling infrastructure remain intact and grow stronger; and the HWMA needs more time to figure out how to achieve that.

Kathy Marshall began her recycling efforts in 1976 San Francisco.  Her foray into SF dumpster-diving, newspaper recycling and composting, was followed by salvaging building materials for an owner-built home and subsequent employment at the So. Hum. transfer station in 1981.


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