Waste Expo Part III: Trash-Talkin’ in Sin City

lasvegas.jpgI wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get from Bob Coyle, vice president of public affairs for waste management company Republic Services of Southern Nevada, when I told him that, based on my experience, no one believes that waste is recycled in Las Vegas. Not the Las Vegas taxi driver I talked to as I was headed for the airport. Not my college buddy who lives in Vegas. Not even some of my fellow attendees at the Waste Expo conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center. As it turns out, that’s hardly news to Coyle.
“That’s one of my biggest challenges,” he says. “And the residential [recycling] system is antiquated, at best.”
Republic Services of Southern Nevada, which has an exclusive contract for waste collection and disposal in Las Vegas, collects trash twice a week from 515,000 residential customers in the area, and brings about 9500 tons of waste per day to the Apex Regional Landfill, located 25 miles north of Las Vegas. It also offers recycling services and operates a municipal material recovery facility (known as a MRF in waste circles) where recyclables are collected, sorted and bailed before being sold and shipped to converters in the US and aboard. But rather than being collected twice weekly, along with the trash, recyclables are only collected twice a month.

Since Republic Services first started its residential recycling pick-up services, it has purchased modern machinery that separates commingled recyclables. But it has not replaced the multiple bins (one for plastic, one for paper, etc) that residents were given when the program started. So while residents are still sorting the materials into the various bins, they watch drivers dump the bins into a single compartment in the collection trucks. This doesn’t do much to instill confidence among residents that recycling in LV is a reality.
But Coyle says he’s working to change that, starting with a pilot program in which more than 8000 residential customers have been given a single, 96-gallon wheeled bin to place recyclables. In addition, some of the customers involved in this weekly recycling pilot are also having their trash collected only once a week instead of twice.
Decreasing garbage collection from twice a week to weekly is an important part of the plan, says Coyle, because the cost-savings Republic would see from reduced garbage pick-up (through less labor and fuel costs) would be put toward weekly recycling pick-up. However, going to weekly garbage pick-up won’t be easy, he says, because there is a very strong public sentiment that garbage will generate unbearable odors in the Vegas heat if it’s not picked up twice a week. As a result, local politicians are resisting Republic’s efforts to go to weekly trash pick-up.
“We want to run the pilot program throughout the summer and show residents that [their garbage] won’t smell if it’s picked up only once a week. Then they’ll become our advocates for weekly pick-up,” Coyle explains.
But at the end of the day, the global economy, rather than public sentiment, will determine the fate of Las Vegas recycling. As a result of the recession, commodity value of plastic, paper and metals fell sharply. There are indications that commodity values for recycled content have bottomed out and are beginning to creep back up. But if that rebound isn’t sustained, recycling in places such as Southern Nevada could really be in jeopardy.
“Our global economy dictates commodity prices, but our local economy dictates landfill prices,” says Coyle. “We have a 200-plus year landfill, so our disposal cost is very low.” What that means is that if commodity prices continue to deteriorate, Republic may find it cheaper to landfill everything rather than separate and sell recyclables.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

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