Addressing what she called “confusion” about Chesterfield’s plans for curbside recycling, a top county official announced last week there is enough money in the fiscal year 2020 budget to continue operating the program in its present form until the end of this year.
Rumors have been flying for the past few weeks that the Board of Supervisors intended to defund curbside recycling and effectively withdraw from the regional initiative when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Meghan Coates, the county’s budget director, took a few minutes at last Wednesday’s board meeting to “provide some clarification about what this budget does or does not do relative to curbside recycling.”
“What’s under consideration is not the elimination of curbside recycling – rather, a more efficient operating model that doesn’t necessitate additional subsidies for that program,” Coates said, moments before the five supervisors voted unanimously to approve the county’s $733.7 million budget.
Under the county’s current agreement with the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, about 75,000 participating Chesterfield households pay $25 annually to have their recyclable materials hauled away biweekly and processed at Tidewater Fibre Corp.’s recycling plant in Chester.
About 20,000 households have opted out of curbside recycling since the Board of Supervisors began offering that option in 2010, necessitating an annual county subsidy of $231,000.
The expense associated with curbside recycling has increased significantly, however, since China implemented rigid new quality standards last year and all but cut off the world’s largest market for recyclable goods.
To maintain the program in its present form, county officials estimate local funding would have to nearly triple to at least $767,000 annually. That figure is projected to exceed $1 million annually by the end of CVWMA’s hauling contract with TFC in 2023.
That would result in an increase of the per-household fee from $25 to $40 annually.
Now County Administrator Joe Casey and the Board of Supervisors are exploring whether curbside recycling can be administered at a lower cost by private waste hauling companies.
“There are a lot of changes happening in the current environment as relates to recycling – both from the perspective of what the prospects are for the value of those materials and also the business model that exists in the county,” said Leslie Haley, the board’s chairwoman, at its meeting last Wednesday.
“What we’re doing is asking questions. That’s where we are in the process. We’re asking questions, we’re looking for feedback and we’re staying open-minded,” she added. “We’re saying, ‘Do we have the right business model?’”
One reason county officials think a direct-billed curbside recycling program can be operated more efficiently is that a private hauler would only provide service to customers who pay for it.
Under its agreement with CVWMA, TFC Recycling collects all recyclable products that are left out at the curbside; its drivers don’t have a list of Chesterfield households that have paid the $25 fee and those who have opted out of the program.
But CVWMA Executive Director Kim Hynes said the program was designed to benefit from economies of scale, which keeps costs lower as an incentive for people to participate.
Since its inception in 1990, it has diverted thousands of tons of plastic and other recyclable goods out of landfills.
Chesterfield alone generates about 14,000 tons annually – the vast majority of which (about 10,000 tons) is collected and processed by TFC Recycling at its automated material recovery facility on Old Stage Road in Chester.
Chesterfield is TFC Recycling’s largest customer in the Richmond region, accounting for 32 percent of its monthly revenue.
“We are working with the county and trying to keep the program whole” until the end of CVWMA’s contract with TFC Recycling, Hynes said in a telephone interview last Friday. As of July 1, there will be four years left on that agreement. Hynes said CVWMA plans to begin the procurement process for a new contract within the next 18 to 24 months.
“We’re trying to determine what the program will look like beyond the current term,” she added.
According to Tad Phillips, vice president of strategy and business development for TFC Recycling, the company’s contract with CVWMA doesn’t allow for establishing a direct-billed or subscription collection program for recyclables.
He also noted that transitioning to that type of program would require “considerable administrative and infrastructure changes to recruit and maintain the ‘critical mass’ customer base needed to support the capital cost and expense of such a program.”
“If the county’s desire is to transfer [curbside recycling] to a private hauler, they’d be in effect getting out of our contract,” Hynes said.
For now, there is $231,000 in the fiscal year 2020 budget to continue curbside recycling in Chesterfield from July 1 through Dec. 31. Tyla Matteson, a Dale District resident, addressed the Board of Supervisors during a public comment period last Wednesday and urged them to maintain the program in its present form. She also presented five pages of signatures from people who support that position and promised “more to come.”
“Please offer an explanation to us should you decide to get out of the program,” Matteson said. “Many of us have been recycling for decades. We deserve a full understanding of all the alternatives being considered and a public hearing on these changes.” ¦