Let’s All Pay the Same for Recycling


On March 26th, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County will discuss two options for funding Orange County’s comprehensive recycling program, which includes curbside pick-up in denser areas and a series of convenience centers that are used primarily (but not exclusively) by rural residents for both recycling and other solid waste.

The first option is to charge every household in Orange County a single $103 fee. No matter where you live, within a municipality or not, and no matter your level of service, curbside or not, you would pay the same fee as anyone else in the county.

The second option is to charge a two-tiered fee based on whether your household is located in a rural or an urban area. In this case, you are rural if you live outside municipal boundaries, whatever the actual characteristics and density of your neighborhood. You would pay a $118 fee under this plan. You are urban if you live within a municipal boundary, no matter how small that municipality may be. You would pay a $94 fee under this plan.

Presumably the second option takes into account the different costs of maintaining a recycling program in rural areas. It costs a lot to keep those convenience centers open, and the case is often made that it is much less efficient to operate curbside services in rural areas given low density and greater distances. Regardless, under both options, the fees would reflect an increase over current levels for any household that does not have access to curbside service.  Single family households in the county with access to curbside services now would see a reduction in fees from current levels.

In the case of trash services, I’ve always liked pay-as-you-throw models. They encourage waste reduction and recycling, and offer a concrete means for pegging price to operating costs. (Some people might say they also encourage illegal dumping.) But in the case of recycling, I don’t think it makes sense to nickel and dime residents based on usage, much less based on where they live. Here’s why.

A Common Goal for Orange County

We must recycle. There is no other option that makes good sense in today’s techno-world, in our progressive county, or on our burgeoning planet. But we also need to make recycling easy for people to do. That’s why universal recycling services are, to me, critically important and should remain a countywide responsibility.

Back in 1997, Orange County put a stake in sand and said as much itself. With the blessing of the municipalities, county government set a goal to reduce solid waste by 61% per capita. The county upped its investments in a multi-faceted recycling system to meet different needs of county residents, and by 2011, the county had the highest waste reduction level of any other in the state, at 56%. That’s amazing progress, and it represents lots of cooperation, education, and hard work by residents and businesses in all three municipalities, unincorporated areas, and of course the university and hospital. But more needs to be done, and not everyone has access to the service they need to maximize their participation in the program.

It takes everyone in the county to meet our county-wide goal, but it’s also a goal we have to pay to meet. Traditionally the county maintained a fee structure that took into account different costs and nature of services in municipal and unincorporated areas, but last year a court case in Cabarrus County called those fees into question. The Solid Waste Advisory Group, or SWAG, a body comprising representatives of all the key stakeholders, was asked to take up the question and determine a new fee structure that meets legal muster. The two options outlined above floated to the top. Because fees are finalized by Inter-Local Agreement (ILA), Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County must come to agreement by the end of spring or risk eating into precious reserves to pay for our recycling program.

Let’s all Pay the Same

I’m in support of the first option for a number of reasons.

First, we have asked the county to be responsible for providing recycling services, and it has done a great job meeting our goals. I think the summary language in the 2012 Comprehensive Review of Solid Waste Collection and Disposal Options commissioned by the Town of Chapel Hill sums it up and applies to every municipality in the County, not just Chapel Hill:

SCS recommends that the Town continue to participate with Orange County to provide recycling services to its residents and businesses in lieu of creating its own program or independently contracting with a new third party for all or part of the recycling services. Initiating a new Inter-Local Agreement with Orange County that identifies metrics of success and governance for the recycling program is recommended. SCS did not identify significant cost savings or improved operational efficiencies resulting from the alternatives considered. Furthermore, ongoing participation with Orange County’s program promotes continued regional cooperation and the economies of scale that result. [Emphasis is mine.]

Second, municipal boundaries are just a line, not a fair measure. If you live in the unincorporated area of the Rogers Road community, you recognize both irony and injustice in being asked to pay more for recycling than your incorporated neighbors. If you live in Heritage Hills, you’re wondering whether density really does set you apart from Briarcliff, which looks a whole lot like your neighborhood. If neighborhoods like these that are located in Extra Territorial Jurisdictions were annexed tomorrow, their recycling fees would go down, even though the costs of doing business in these areas presumably would not.

Third, while I’m sympathetic toward urban residents who don’t like the thought of subsidizing rural services, I can think of any number of services and amenities that are weighted toward urban places that are subsidized by state and local taxes extracted from rural residents. Schools. Roads. Economic development. Transit. Human services.

In fact, many rural families subsidize public services like trash and recycling with their non-tax dollars, too—they pay for the extra gas and wear and tear on their vehicles as they lug their trash and recycling to convenience centers. I’d rather have two trucks doing this job each week than 10,000 cars, wouldn’t you?

Urban communities in Orange County rely on their rural neighbors to constitute their buffer, to shield them from development, to protect their water system, and to preserve their bucolic views and recreational opportunities, among other amenities. We prevent many of our rural places from becoming denser, and thus from becoming more ‘efficient.’ At best, urban areas contribute to the high cost of offering public services in rural areas. Let’s own our contradictions.

I don’t want Carrboro to play the “urban rural divide” hand along with the NC General Assembly, and that’s why I voted for a universal household recycling fee. I don’t care if it’s actually cheaper for me to recycle than for my father, who lives in Efland. I need him to keep his plastics and paper out of our waste stream, just like he needs me to do the same. After all, we each lose when we don’t recycle. We pay higher transportation and landfill fees to store recyclable trash–in someone else’s rural county—and we damage our environment and quality of life while we do.

Let’s share the costs and rewards equally, and meet our Orange County recycling goals together.