One year into city trash plan, Wichitans’ habits mostly unchanged

11/09/2013 5:03 PM

11/10/2013 6:43 AM

One year into it, Wichita residents haven’t felt much of an impact from the city’s revised trash plan.

People are fending for themselves in the open marketplace of trash haulers and watching their costs rise while largely unaware of a new city website that offers comparison shopping among 15 trash-hauling companies.

And, according to residents who responded to questions through the Public Insight Network, their recycling habits haven’t changed much, either, even though requiring haulers to provide curbside single-stream recycling was a prime feature of the plan that went into effect Nov. 1, 2012. Most who already recycled are taking their recyclables to the same supermarkets, schools and recycling centers they’ve always used. Those who usually don’t recycle haven’t started doing so.

Nor do most of those who responded seem aware that they can get smaller trash containers to save money – another feature of the new plan.

Barry Longcor, who was shelling out $143 to Waste Management every quarter, went with another company, Best Value Services, after receiving the company’s fliers in the mail. His bill has plunged to $57 and he even has a larger trash container.

He made the change after finding out from his neighbors that they were paying far less for trash service than he had been.

He hasn’t recycled in the past, but he said he will look into it and start recycling if it doesn’t add costs.

Longcor, a supervisor at Cessna, still isn’t satisfied with the system. He said he thinks the costs of trash service should be even across the city.

“I don’t see why one person should have to pay more than anybody else. I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. “It shouldn’t be any more to pick up for the guy next door to me or across the street than to pick up my trash.”

About the plan

The plan arose out of years of debate over trash service in Wichita. The public rejected a 2010 plan that called for the city to create a waste-hauler cooperative. The new plan left it up to residents to negotiate prices and services with haulers licensed to operate in the city. The haulers were required to offer curbside recycling and pay-as-you-throw options for the first time, and to also offer small as well as large containers.

Residents could stick with the trash haulers they had, but if they wanted to add curbside recycling or switch to a different size cart, they had to call their hauler.

Curbside recycling is single-stream, meaning residents can put paper, cardboard, cans, plastic bottles and container glass in the bin, while hazardous and food wastes and most plastic bags aren’t accepted.

The city hoped its new plan would keep the free market open and decrease the amount of trash going to landfills.

To encourage competitive pricing, the city established a website, http://www.wichita.gov/Government/Departments/PWU/Pages/SolidWasteRecycling.aspx, that lets residents compare costs and services provided by haulers.

Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for the city’s public works department, said the city markets the website on its own website, as well as its YouTube website and in two videos that air on its City7 channel. Nelson said the city will continue to look for other ways to better market the site.

Numbers hard to come by

The city doesn’t get a lot of feedback on the plan.

“People call every now and then,” Nelson said. “We have had about one complaint a month that we’ve worked through with the waste haulers.”

The city is working on a year-end report on the new plan. But it doesn’t have data on whether residents are recycling more, or what prices customers are paying for service.

“We were specifically not getting into the market, so we don’t have a database of costs,” he said.

The city also doesn’t have any data on whether the new plan has reduced trash going to the landfills, he said.

“We are happy that for the past year we have at least made the option of curbside recycling available,” Nelson said.

Spencer Duncan, executive director of Kansas Organization of Recyclers, said recycling has increased statewide in recent years. Numbers are hard to come by because the state doesn’t mandate recycling, so nobody keeps track. But indicators — such as a rise in the numbers of people who have signed up for single-stream recycling service and a reduction in tonnage fees from landfills — show there’s more recycling in Kansas.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment does two-year recycling studies in the state. The last study, in 2012, showed a 32 percent to 34 percent recycling rate among state residents.

“Ten years ago, it was in the high teens, low 20s,” Duncan said.

City Council member Janet Miller said she isn’t surprised people don’t use the city’s new trash-plan website.

“I think many people, probably most people, think that trash service is a municipal service that the city should provide, or should at least be involved in,” Miller said. “They don’t necessarily think of it as something they could shop around for.”

Miller had favored the alternate plan in which all haulers agreed to one price to provide both trash and recycling service as well as a once-a-year bulk pickup. Each hauler would have served a specific area of the city.

“All haulers had agreed to it. It wouldn’t have put anybody out of business. It would have been terrific,” Miller said. “But there was a contingent in Wichita that felt like it was not the way to go, so that option was not chosen. So I’m very cynical about our current system.”

“It means people have to pay a lot more than if it were a municipal service,” she said. “It means more trash haulers driving up and down our streets, and noise pollution and wear and tear on our streets, and it means having to pay extra for recycling, which is ridiculous.”

But, Miller said, she doesn’t sense any interest from people in revisiting the issue.

Small changes

Jim Spencer, division vice president of Waste Connections, said the new plan hasn’t meant much of a change to the company, which already had been offering recycling to most of its customers.

But he’s seen a steady increase in the number of people adding recycling service year over year.

“It’s not hundreds of people a day, but over a year’s time, it does add up,” he said.

Few have chosen to use smaller containers, Spencer said.

“We are not seeing very many people opt for the lower volume service, and I don’t really know why,” he said. “We probably had only a few hundred actually switch to the smaller cart.”

Residents say their costs have gone up in the last year, primarily due to fuel surcharges and extra fees charged by their trash haulers, and they don’t like it.

Rita Weber was astonished that the company she had been using for 30 years charged her $102 every three months. As a retiree living on a fixed income, she spent three months looking into changing companies in order to reduce her monthly expenses.

She read the newspaper and visited the city’s trash plan website, but largely did her own research and eventually switched from Waste Management to Waste Connections. Now, she said, she is paying only $60 and gets better service.

“I was floored,” she said.

Weber would have preferred to stay with Waste Management because she liked the people who picked up her trash.

“The employees were awesome,” she said, “but they (Waste Management) sure weren’t working with customers on costs.”

“I know they have to pay for the gas, but I kind of think that should be part of their business plan,” Weber said. “I don’t mind a small additional charge for that, but I think it was over $25 every three months for fuel, and that’s totally ridiculous.”

Debbie Rhodes is one person who used the city’s website to lower her trash bill. She went from paying $80 with Waste Management to $55 with Waste Link.

But she still recycles on her own, taking her items to Earhart Elementary as she always has.

Rhodes, a homemaker, said she had wanted a plan that would give each trash hauler a section of the city.

“Today is my trash pickup, and there’s five or six trucks rumbling through here,” she said. “I really like the idea of having just one truck come around and pick up everybody’s trash and you’re done with it.”

She also wishes the city would require people to pull their trash carts off the street.

“Tacky looking,” she said.

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