October 9, 2011

Will new trash plan in Wichita cut costs?

Wichita may soon have a new residential trash plan, but it's more about creating options than mandated changes for residents.

Wichita may soon have a new residential trash plan, but it's more about creating options than mandated changes for residents.

Want to pay less by using a smaller container? Your choice. How much less? Hard to say. Like to have curbside recycling? You decide.

What is firm about the proposed trash plan is that haulers licensed to operate in Wichita would be required to offer those options, which isn't the case now. Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to decide whether they like the plan.

If adopted, the proposal wouldn't take effect until Nov. 1, 2012, giving haulers a chance to present plans on how they will comply with the new regulations and to buy smaller containers.

The proposal would continue with the current free-market system. A Sedgwick County official said Wichita is the largest city in the United States to have a free-market trash service, which some say drives up prices.

Haulers who have had a chance to dig deeper into the plan say it won't cause them to raise prices. But they aren't as clear on how much it might cut costs for people who use a smaller container.

That's an important factor, said Kathy Dittmer, a member of the Wichita Independent Neighborhoods board and chair of its action committee.

"I seriously hope that those who change to a smaller container will see a significant reduction to their costs and not just a token amount," Dittmer said.

Jim Spencer, local division vice president for Waste Connections, which has the largest share of the Wichita market, said his company hasn't decided on its pricing for volume-based trash.

But he noted it costs a trash hauler the same to go to each house, regardless of the container size, so the only difference is in disposal savings.

Servicing a 65-gallon cart instead of a 95-gallon cart would bring a hauler a savings of only $1.65 a month — or $4.95 a quarter — when it came to the weight-based fee charged by the transfer station, Spencer said.

David Lies, vice president of Lies Trash Service and president of the Independent Haulers Association, has said his company would charge about $10 less a quarter for a 65-gallon cart than it would for the larger one.

But some people would need to recycle in order to be able to fit their trash in the smaller container. Recycling runs from $6 to $18 a quarter. In Lies' case, the company charges $6 a quarter, so a recycler with a 65-gallon cart would have to subtract that amount from the $10 cart savings, resulting in an overall savings of $4 a quarter.

Comparing prices online

The proposal calls for the city to establish an interactive Web page for residents to provide the name of their trash hauler, the service and the cost. The page would be found on a link on the city's website,

"The key to whether prices go up crazily or not is that website," said Dittmer, from the neighborhood group.

The page would be similar to one set up by The Eagle last year when the city was considering a proposal that would have set up a trash cooperative with a $20-month universal rate. More than 700 readers responded to the survey and posted results that showed costs ranged from as low as $21 every three months to as high as $108 quarterly. The city eventually abandoned the cooperative idea.

Wichitan Adam Knolla said that survey showed him he was paying too much. He is glad to see the city follow through with a similar Web page.

"The more people involved will help level out the prices for everybody," Knolla said.

Dittmer said the "onus is on the citizens" for the city's Web page to be effective.

Lies said he hopes people will keep providing information after trash is no longer a hot topic.

"Hopefully, it'll stay out there because people need to know," he said. "A lot of people paying $100 shouldn't be. It's all about education."

City Manager Bob Layton said the Web page would be an important component of the plan. He said the city would also make forms available so residents who don't have access to a computer can provide information.

"I don't know that it will be the key to everything because we will depend on the information that's supplied," he said. "We're not going to be able to verify the accuracy. But we found that when The Eagle did its site, it gave residents an opportunity to negotiate with haulers.

"It's a great way to provide information to let the free-market system work."

Private vs. public

Wichita is the largest city in the nation to still have a free-market trash system, said Susan Erlenwein, the county's director of environmental resources.

She and others say that drives up prices, because multiple haulers are trying to serve the same areas, retracing each other's steps.

"It's not very efficient, so it costs more," Erlenwein said. "Just look at the cost of fuel. If you're running errands, isn't it better to get everything done in one trip?"

Bill Bider, the director of Kansas' Bureau of Waste Management, said, "It's pretty common sense that it's going to cost more per house when you have multiple companies serving an area rather than one truck that can pick up every house on that street."

Residents get lower trash bills when cities follow the contract route and take bids on trash service, he said. Lawrence and McPherson are among those that contract trash.

But, Bider added, most of Kansas is "heavily weighted toward this free market option."

That includes Topeka, where Shawnee County has a service that competes with private haulers.

"Topeka is higher than Wichita," Bider said.

Wichita is changing its trash plan now in order to adhere to the county's solid waste management plan, which is updated yearly.

The county's plan says it "expects" all cities to contract for trash. It also says cities should include volume-based trash service and curbside recycling and a ban on grass clippings.

Wichita's plan would fulfill two out of the four recommendations. No contract hauling, no ban on grass clippings. But there would be volume-based service and curbside recycling.

Cities were asked to comply by Jan. 1, 2011.

Some have done that. Derby, for example signed a contract with Waste Connections in 2009 to do curbside recycling and provide a 95-gallon cart for $44.25 for every three months and a 65-gallon cart for $38.25 quarterly.

"I've had people in Derby say they wish they had recycling every week and trash every other week," Erlenwein said.

Other cities in the county that contract their trash include Andale, Bel Aire, Bentley, Cheney, Clearwater, Park City, Sedgwick and Valley Center.

Garden Plain, Goddard and Haysville are among those that continue to use a free-market system.

A driving force behind the backlash of Wichita's trash proposal last year was that the city would assign haulers to different quadrants and residents would have to use that hauler. Some residents said that wasn't right, so the city is taking a much more hands-off approach this time around.

Or as Layton said while presenting the new plan to the council for review last month, "You said stay out of my trash. I'm really trying to stay out of your trash."

Yet, the government has long been into people's trash — from the federal level to the state and county levels.

"We are talking trash here," Dittmer said. "We are talking about things that could be harmful to you and perhaps there does need to be some kind of management."

Adding recycling

Under the proposal, haulers would be required to offer curbside, single-stream recycling every other week. That means all recycled items can be put in one container.

The city isn't dictating what those recyclables are or what items the hauler must accept.

"We're more concerned to make sure they have the infrastructure in place to do the single stream," Layton said. "But it'll be up to the haulers to determine the material."

It would be up to residents to choose a hauler that meets their recycling needs.

Some small haulers would be offering recycling for the first time. Jerry McCray Trash Service is among those.

"Most of my customers aren't interested in recycling," said McCray, who has about 350 customers. "They aren't interested in recycling and don't want to go through the hassle. They just want all their trash gone."

He estimated that 10 to 15 percent of his customers might want to recycle. A 65-gallon recycle cart costs about $40 to $55 each.

McCray said he knows of a girls basketball team that sells recycled items to raise money. So rather than make another run with his truck, he said he may ask that team to do the recycle collecting for him.

"Makes sense to me," he said.

Haggard Trash Service, which has about 2,000 customers, also would be adding recycling for the first time. That on top of adding smaller carts for the volume-base requirement would make it financially difficult, said Heather Haggard, who co-owns the business with her husband, Cleo.

But the plan won't shut the company down.

The additional cost "just makes it more complicated," she said.

She likes that the proposal comes with a 10-year contract with the haulers, so they won't have to face more changes for a while.

The proposal also includes tripling the annual licensing fee to $450 a truck.

The city says it has been subsidizing the administration of the licensing process, including annual inspections of the trucks, by $30,000 annually. Even if the plan isn't passed, the fees would be bumped up to $300 to cover costs, Layton said.

Waste Connections' Spencer said nothing in the plan would cause his company to raise prices.

If prices go up, he said, it would be because of such high-cost items as health insurance, parts and fuel.

Single-stream processing

Haulers would be able to recoup some of their expenses for handling recycled items by paying lower fees at transfer stations, where trash is delivered before it is taken to the landfill.

How much haulers make in selling recycled items depends on the size of the operation.

There are three single-stream processing centers in the area: Waste Connections' facility in Hutchinson, which it obtained when it bought out Stutzman Refuse Disposal last November; International Paper Recycling, 4300 W. 29th St. South; and Lies' facility, near 47th South and Palisade.

International Paper switched to single stream in January. Lies built its $500,000 facility earlier this year and began taking in single stream about six months ago.

Waste Connections and Lies currently receive recycling from trucks operated only by their companies.

Waste Connections took in 8,432 tons of recycled residential items in 2010, almost double the amount of 2009. Lies has been averaging about 32 tons a week.

"Single-stream recycling is a good idea because it maximizes recovery from curbside collection," Bider said. "And we have a market for just about everything."

Dittmer said the plan was a step in the right direction.

"It's an attempt to make recycling the easiest way possible," she said. "What we depend on is for the haulers to do it for a very attractive price."

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