Wednesday, June 9, 2010

EPA wants half of state’s trash kept out of landfills

The Ohio EPA wants to boost recycling rates across the state without creating additional financial demands for cash-strapped waste management districts, including the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, which is working to erase a projected $6 million budget shortfall this year.

SWACO and the other 51 solid waste districts in the state must figure out how to comply with EPA regulatory guidelines that call for boosting the state’s recycling rate to 50 percent from 40.7 percent in 2007, the last year data were available. The agency’s plan is focused on improving the effectiveness of community recycling programs, officials said.

The goals include requiring districts to get better at changing recycling behavior in their communities through marketing and outreach efforts, and developing resources such as Web sites and guides listing local recycling opportunities. The plan also sets a new goal for solid waste districts to measure the effects of their recycling and waste reduction programs on greenhouse gas emissions. There also will be a stepped-up focus on the development of technology to convert waste to energy sources such as electricity and vehicle fuels.

“It’s not optional,” said Andrew Booker, a supervisor in Ohio EPA’s Division of Solid and Infectious Waste Management. “Their plans will have to demonstrate how they will meet these goals.”

The good news, Booker said, is many of the solid waste districts already meet or exceed the recycling goals in the new statewide plan. Those that don’t may be able to get there by improving the effectiveness of their recycling programs, rather than raising landfill fees and other levies to fund their compliance efforts.

SWACO Executive Director Ron Mills said the Columbus-area district has taken steps that will go a long way toward meeting or surpassing the goals. “The recommendations in that report in and of themselves will not drive up our operating costs,” he said.

SWACO has had to make a number of moves to eliminate this year’s $6 million budget shortfall, including requiring local trash haulers to dump at SWACO’s landfill in southern Franklin County instead of at private out-of-county sites, eliminating some programs, reducing staff and streamlining business operations.

Ohio EPA recognizes these are tough economic times for solid waste districts since they are financially dependent on landfill fees, Booker said. Revenue from such “tipping” fees are closely tied to economic conditions, with drops in manufacturing and fewer purchases by consumers in a recession lowering the amount of trash headed to landfills.

“Despite the financial challenges, we’ve seen positive movement on recycling from residents and businesses,” he said. “There is continuing interest by folks to do more recycling.” EPA reported that nearly 13 million tons of waste was reduced or recycled statewide in 2007.

The recycling rate in SWACO’s district – comprising Franklin and small parts of Union, Delaware, Fairfield, Licking and Pickaway counties – is nearly 30 percent, Mills said. That includes activity at the district’s 220 drop-box locations, where recycling was up 16 percent in 2009 compared with the prior year, according to SWACO.

But there appears to be plenty of work still to be done. In his State of the City address in February, Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman said the city has one of the worst recycling rates among big cities. Columbus residents recycle just 14.6 percent of their trash, according to rankings from Akron-based trade journal Waste & Recycling News.

To address that, the city will reinstate weekly yard waste collections in April, Coleman said, and he will push for a free curb-side recycling program for residents by 2012. “We plan to work with the city as they roll that out,” Mills said, noting SWACO’s drop boxes can complement Columbus’ curb-side program.

Waste to energy: As for another aspect of EPA’s new recycling plan, Mills said SWACO is ahead of the curve on converting landfill gas to energy and green fuels. SWACO has a Green Energy Center that takes methane from the landfill and converts it to compressed natural gas to power some of the district’s vehicles.

In addition, Cleveland-based Quasar Energy Group is working with Kurtz Brothers Inc. of Independence to develop a facility at the former Columbus trash-burning power plant that will divert organic waste from landfills and convert it to electricity or green fuels.

Mills said similar waste-to-energy projects have the potential to become revenue producers for SWACO.

“We’re looking at ways to adjust and enhance some of resources beyond a costly (trash) rate increase,” he said. “That’s not the answer.”

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