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Corrugated recycling: a tale of two cities.

Two independent municipalities side by side in Connecticut (Hartford and West Hartford) decided to relieve the burden on the regional landfill by recycling corrugated (commonly referred to as cardboard boxes). One city (West Hartford) was highly successful, throttling down the flow of corrugated into the waste stream while turning a profit. Meanwhile, the city of Hartford faced challenges relevant to many other urban cities.

OCC (old corrugated containers) is plentiful yet often overlooked as a recoverable portion of the residential waste stream. About 10 percent of OCC waste comes from residential sources. While nearly 7,000 communities in the United States have curbside recycling programs, most do not recover OCC.

Although residential OCC curbside recovery programs have the potential to remove substantial volumes of material from the waste stream, reduce tipping fees and contribute revenues to offset solid waste management costs, success is not always guaranteed. Some communities manage to launch successful OCC recovery programs from the outset. Other communities, particularly urban ones, struggle over many years to build OCC recovery to meaningful levels. Understanding the underlying differences between these neighboring municipalities should be useful to those considering a curbside recovery program in their own communities.

Making It Pay in West Hartford

West Hartford, a suburban community of 56,000 people, is primarily residential, with some retail and commercial enterprises. Solid waste management for the town is the responsibility of the Department of Public Works, which contracts the collection of MSW, recyclables, and yard waste for approximately 21,000 households.

West Hartford belongs to the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority (CRRA), which provides its member towns with MSW disposal and recyclable processing services. MSW is taken to CRRA's waste-to-energy facility in Hartford where it is disposed. All CRRA member towns and cities pay a tipping fee for each ton of MSW delivered to the waste-to-energy facility. In FY 1994, the tipping fee was $55 per ton for members.

The tipping fee pays not only for MSW disposal, but for the processing and marketing of recyclables, and other solid waste management services provided by CRRA. Sale of recyclables by CRRA is an indirect benefit to the cities and towns because it is used to hold down the tipping fee.

The town promotes its curbside recycling program primarily through a brochure that was developed and mailed to residents when the program began in 1992. In the brochure, residents are asked to flatten the boxes and screen their OCC for wax and contamination. Little other publicity was necessary.

The relative affluence, stability, and size of the West Hartford community contribute to the success of its recycling program. In November 1993, West Hartford estimated that the participation rate for recycling was 97.2 percent (based on a survey of 2,393 households over a four-week period).

During FY 1994, West Hartford's curbside collection of OCC yielded 213 tons of good quality material. (Special collections produced another 56.9 tons.) West Hartford estimates the cost of collecting 6,049 tons of residential recyclables for delivery to CRRA was $506,520 in FY 1994. One percent of the total volume was attributed to OCC. Therefore, the allocated cost attributable to collecting 213 tons of OCC would be pegged at $5,065. Incremental costs can be a somewhat more realistic basis for measuring effectiveness. The city notes that it would save nothing by dropping OCC, so its incremental costs are virtually zero.

By collecting OCC, rather than disposing of it at $55 per ton, the city realized an avoided cost savings of $11,715 ($55 x 213 tons) However, this measurement of avoided cost probably understates the actual system savings, because revenues derived from CCRA's sale of the OCC are used to offset tipping costs and CRRA operating expenses.

If newspapers are already being collected, then OCC collection can often be implemented with few incremental costs. For many communities, adding OCC may not require redesigning collection routes or adding special trucks, except, perhaps during the end-of-year holiday season.

West Hartford's experience shows that collection of OCC can be a viable addition to curbside collection programs in suburban communities. Collection and processing costs can be affordable, and the large market demand for OCC continues to grow.

Marginal Results in Hartford

Hartford is the state capital and the largest city in Connecticut with a population of approximately 140,000. Solid waste management for Hartford is the responsibility of the city's Department of Public Works, which oversees the collection of municipal solid waste, recyclables, and yard waste for about 56,000 households. Like West Hartford, Hartford is also a member of the CRRA and uses its solid waste disposal and recyclable processing services.

Hartford's curbside collection of recyclables has been most successful with single and two-family dwellings. The city has been least successful in public, multifamily dwellings. Despite extensive public education programs, participation and recovery rates are low. Hartford's per capita recovery rate of 0.25 lb per day was considerably lower than the national average of 0.96 lb per day.

From 1992 to 1994, Hartford's curbside program resulted in the collection of approximately 102 tons of OCC, along with more than 3,300 tons of old newspaper. The volume of OCC generated does not appear to merit the addition of collection vehicles or adjustments to collection routes.

If Hartford's recycling collection costs of $1,213,000 are allocated according to the volume of material delivered to the CRRA processing facility, the cost of collecting OCC in 1994 was $48,520, based on OCC being four percent of the volume. For the 53 tons collected at the curb, this represents a fully-allocated cost of $915 per ton.

A more realistic way of appraising the economics of OCC recovery is to look at incremental costs. Since the cost of collection would not improve noticeably without OCC, the incremental cost of OCC collection is essentially zero. Still, the small volumes of OCC generated to date are disappointing.

Problems in Hartford are typical of large cities with public housing complexes and affect all materials, not just OCC. City officials are implementing new strategies to encourage recycling in these areas.

Implementing Guide

The following guidelines, based on the experience of the neighboring cities of Hartford and West Hartford as well as other municipalities, may be useful for communities who want to augment existing curbside recycling programs by adding OCC:

* Inspect or sample the residential waste stream to determine available OCC. On a national average basis, OCC is about two percent of the residential waste, or about 20 lb per person per year.

* Consider the probable participation rate for OCC recycling. Participation for other materials is a good indicator, but adding OCC will require a specific education program.

* Estimate the impact, if any, on collection costs. Many communities may find virtually no increase in collection costs, due to the relatively small volume contribution of OCC. However, for routes with consistently full vehicles, a small increase in any material, including OCC, may add to the overall costs.

* Consider the impact at the processing facility. National average for OCC processing costs are about $47 per ton, but some facilities process OCC for half that cost.

* Investigate local OCC markets to negotiate the best shipping terms and price.

* Plan for variability. More OCC is typically generated during the holidays and the summer months, when many household moves take place.

* Pilot the program first to work out the bugs. When full implementation occurs, experience will be the basis for your written materials and promotions.

Should Your Community Recover OCC

OCC may be the most overlooked material for recovery from the residential waste stream. The 2,650,000 tons of generated residential OCC is more than steel cans, aluminum packaging, plastic bottles, magazines, office paper, bulk mail, disposable diapers, and more than clothing and footwear. Some communities show that local generation can be as much as three times this national average.

OCC is easy for residents to identify and segregate for recovery, and it can often be added economically to residential curbside collection programs. Incremental collection costs can be minimal and processing costs more than covered by material revenue. Even on a fully-allocated cost basis, OCC recovery can be justified by avoided collection and disposal costs per ton in the mid $30 range. Viewed in this light, recycling corrugated is likely to be one of the most cost-effective things a community can do to reduce the flow of solid waste into landfills.
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Title Annotation:Hartford and West Hartford's recycling procedures for old corrugated containers
Publication:Public Works
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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