Cost will be key for city’s potential rollout of commercial recycling

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

When considering the potential usefulness of commercial recycling in Lawrence, Commissioner Matthew Herbert might encourage others to do as he did: Look into a dumpster downtown.

“You’ve got a lot of glass, a lot of cans and bottles, cardboard,” Herbert said. “Just based on what I saw looking through the dumpsters as we walked downtown, I think it’s safe to say almost the majority of the trash that’s generated by downtown businesses right now is recyclable.”

At the urging of some downtown businesses, residents and local leaders such as Herbert, the city’s solid waste department has come up with a business proposal for a pilot single-stream commercial recycling service. The city contracts with the Hamm recycling facility for its single-stream residential service and is charged per ton of material. The proposal is to pilot two areas, downtown and south Lawrence, under a model that aims to recoup all the city’s costs. As proposed, the service would be more than $100 per month for some businesses.

Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Eileen Horn said businesses generate a lot of recyclable material, and some are already recycling in a hodgepodge way via private recycling collection or drop-off services. She said overall she is excited about the commercial recycling proposal because many residents have been requesting the service for some time. For all involved, Horn said a key consideration will be cost, and she is glad the city will be doing a pilot.

“I think the devil is in the details for the cost, in terms of how does the city offer that service in a way that is financially sustainable for us,” Horn said. “Because that is a lot of labor and truck hours out collecting material.”

As currently proposed, the pilot service would cost a downtown business about $132 per month for six days per week of pickup. Fees for businesses in south Lawrence — the pilot area is mostly on south Iowa Street and 23rd Street — would be about $44 per month for collection twice per week. For both areas, customers would need to purchase a 95-gallon recycling cart and could pay more to have additional carts.

Herbert has been asking city staff about expanding Lawrence’s single-stream recycling service to businesses since he took office in 2015, and the idea had been discussed before that as well. Herbert wasn’t too deterred by the proposed cost model — the business proposal must still be reviewed by the City Commission — and said it’s good to see something coming forward after so much time.

“I don’t want to speak poorly on the model because I think taking a first step has to happen,” Herbert said. “And the rough draft may not be the final draft.”

But some business owners are wary of the potential high price tag. Rick Martin, chef and co-owner of Limestone Pizza, is a member of the Lawrence Restaurant Association, which requested a city-provided commercial recycling service. Martin (who is married to Horn) said the group has been meeting with staff in the solid waste department and is looking forward to the pilot, but he is afraid the proposed price may be an issue for some businesses.

“Businesses that run on a tight margin are really going to start to dissect that and see where they can get this to be more affordable,” Martin said. “I just don’t know any restaurant right now that has room in their fixed-cost budget to put $130 per month into a new service, unless it’s something that’s going to make them money.”

Martin said that currently the restaurant pays $20 per month for a private company to collect its recyclables twice per week. He said he’d be interested in an option more akin to the south Lawrence pilot service, with a less frequent collection schedule and lower monthly cost.

If the City Commission approves the proposal for the pilot program, it will be available on a volunteer basis. In order to recoup costs with the current fees, the city would need 15 percent of businesses in both pilot areas to sign up, which works out to 33 businesses downtown and 22 in south Lawrence, according to the proposal. The pilot program would run for eight months, May through December.

To sign up, participants would pay a startup fee of $115, which includes one 95-gallon locking lid recycling cart, cart delivery and training with a recycling specialist, according to the proposal. Additional carts would be available for $76 each.

Herbert said one thing he’d like the commission to consider is whether another city cart is necessary. He said that if the pilot succeeds in reducing garbage, he’d hope that some of the trash dumpsters, especially the multitude along the alleyways downtown, could then be replaced with recycling dumpsters.

“I’m not sure why we need to add additional waste disposal containers if the amount of waste isn’t changing,” Herbert said.

Horn — who will soon leave her position to join the state Legislature –said she hopes another benefit of the pilot commercial recycling program will be more conversation about waste reduction. She said a lot of businesses currently use unrecyclable materials, such as Styrofoam containers and disposable utensils.

“I think it will hopefully create a conversation upstream about what waste we are generating,” Horn said. “When you can see that certain things aren’t going to be recyclable in our new program, that we’re paying for, maybe we need to think about changing our sourcing or the disposable items we’re buying on the front end.”

The City Commission is scheduled to review the commercial recycling business plan at its meeting on Jan. 16.