Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners, in a 6-1 vote, approved increasing waste collection fees by 39 cents per month per household, effective January 3. Terms of the county’s franchise services contract allowed its hauler, Waste Pro, to “petition the county for rate adjustments associated with recycling markets at reasonable times, not to exceed once per year, on the basis of higher-than-normal increased costs beyond the contractors’ and county’s control.” “Higher than normal costs will be considered any amount higher than 20 percent over the preceding calendar year.”
Chip Gingles, representing Waste Pro, told how in 2021 the company would get a $19/ton rebate for recyclables. Now, it is getting a $63/ton charge.
Furthermore, it has been hard to find workers, despite proactive recruitment efforts like posting signage and having a presence at job fairs, and folks in the room concurred that they normally see garbage collectors running because they have so much to do. Collectors can now command $28–29 per hour, and Waste Pro is offering a $5,000 sign-on bonus. In addition, Waste Pro is going to spend “well over $1 million” this year on capital investments and spend more on customer education. The latter program would keep the public informed of what recyclables the market is currently accepting and under what conditions. First, Gingles said, people need to learn to quit putting plastic bags in with their recyclables because doing so “contaminates the whole load.”
Following the slide show, in a very unprecedented move, Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman invited Don Yelton, who frequents the meetings for public comment and also has a background in solid waste management, to come to the podium. He was among those who said the fee increase was inadequate, and he said there were things that could be done that would both increase profits for Waste Pro and decrease user fees.
Yelton was contacted by the Tribune to elaborate on some of these measures. One thing he stressed was that the county needs to keep its franchise agreement with Waste Pro. Just to the south, in Henderson County, he said people are paying about 40% more for their recycling. There, Yelton said, three or four trucks drive the same streets each week, serving their customers. Given current diesel costs, this substantially raises prices for everybody. Competition typically exerts downward pressure on markets, but the solid waste franchise agreement was one of those natural monopolies that provides greater benefit at a lower cost.
Another thing Yelton said would make more economic sense would be for Waste Pro to be both the hauler and the recycling processor. Processors can stockpile various recyclables, so they have the freedom to sell each when pricing makes it advantageous. If, for example, metal is having a bad year and it can only be sold at a loss, the processor could hold onto it and profit off its other materials. The amount Waste Pro, which operates in several states, would have to spend on acquiring processors or building the operations from scratch could, of course, vary greatly depending on whether the county wants to use a form of fractional distillation, a centrifuge with magnets, and/or even manual sorting for the county’s single-stream system.
At this point, Yelton spoke about misconceptions about various recyclables. He said people should never recycle glass, as it contaminates all the paper. If people want to recycle it, he said they should lobby for a state deposit program.
Yelton also recalled an old debate over whether the cost, pecuniary or environmental, of all the soap and water used to clean cans offset any advantage to recycling. He said he used to clean a lot of dogfood cans because if he didn’t, he’d get maggots in his recycling bin. He spoke to a metal processor about this, and he laughed and said the grease actually helps the recycling process by aiding in the melting of metals.
Yelton recalled how, years ago, he was able to make paper recycling profitable for a large office by placing collection bins in areas convenient for disposal. The system worked so well that a hauler was paying the company $385 per ton to take the paper somewhere to turn his own profit.
After talking somewhat on topics like the politics behind the local recycling scene and the technological inertia preventing corporations from investing large sums of capital and labor into diversionary operations, Yelton said there really had been only one bid for hauling the county’s solid waste. The other bid was nothing more than numbers strewn about. Nobody else wanted to touch the county’s recycling because they didn’t think they could make it a profitable operation.
Speaking before the commissioners, Yelton said the franchise contract could automatically cause rates to rise and fall with the markets by defining recycling fees as a function of data on “the yellow sheets in Chicago.” The yellow sheets provide information to traders about bonds issued by companies that aren’t listed on a national exchange. Another thing the commissioners could do to make recycling profitable would be to charge an availability fee. That is, all households would be billed for having recycling made available to them. Should they opt to contract with another provider, they would still have to pay the fee. Yelton also thought the county could cut down on administrative costs by collecting solid waste hauling fees with property taxes and sending Waste Pro a monthly check.
Following Yelton’s remarks, Newman asked about the history of Waste Pro’s fee hikes. Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen said when the contract was signed in 2019, the monthly fee was $19.21 and no increases were allowed. It wasn’t until 2022, when the first Consumer Price Index (CPI) adjustment went into effect, that fees rose to $20.54. The second CPI adjustment went into effect this year, raising rates to $22.16. Pederson said this was the first year Waste Pro attempted to exercise the discretionary clause for extraordinary costs that, once approved, ended up raising fees to $22.55.
Gingle said the current ask would provide only “very partial coverage,” with County Manager Avril Pinder offering that Waste Pro had worked very hard to bring down their request, which at first was over $2. Newman was the only board member to vote against the raise. “Of course, for my constituents, I don’t want to vote for this.” Right? “Like, why would I, right?” he said. More importantly, though, he wanted the contract written with formulae and stated triggers for adjusting to inflation, fuel costs, and key commodity pricing, for example.
Pedersen illustrated how so much rigidity might not be pragmatic when he said it might be time to review the county’s recycling policy. He said the county had modeled its recycling program on what had worked for the City of Asheville, and then the “Amazon of Things” came along, generating tons of corrugated cardboard for curbside recycling.