July 13, 2008

La Crosse County’s Recycling Rules Confusing and Possibly Inefficient

By KJ Lang, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 13--If recycling rules are too complex and confusing, people just won't do it.

Which is why La Crosse County needs a more coordinated and standardized countywide recycling program, said Larry Hougom, vice president of Hilltopper Refuse and Recycling, which sorts many of the county's recyclables. La Crosse County has 18 municipalities -- and 18 separate recycling programs.

Some recycle different materials, while others have different pick-up and drop-off procedures.

That can make recycling rules difficult to understand, especially when moving within the county, said Brian Tippetts, La Crosse County solid waste director.

The county's Solid Waste Policy Board, which includes representatives from areas outside the county, has discussed how to collaborate more in attempts to standardize programs not just across the county but within the La Crosse disposal system, which includes Buffalo, Houston, Wabasha and Trempealeau counties.

In June, the solid waste board approved a plan for the county that includes the county taking a stronger role in facilitating standardization and coordination of recycling efforts.

"It would make life simpler, enhance service, reduce cost and create a lesser impact on the environment," said Tippetts. "On the down side, change is painful and it isn't perfect."

No countywide program here

The county stepped away from administering the recycling program in the early 1990s, about the time the state developed laws on recycling, Tippetts said. The county asked the municipalities whether they would like to take over the program, and the key municipalities responded that they did, he said. The county then eliminated its program and recycling coordinator position, he said.

La Crosse County municipalities often assign recycling duties to a municipal official who already wears multiple hats, Tippetts said.

When the county is responsible for overseeing recycling, someone usually is devoted solely to that program and is "more familiar with opportunities to benefit the county," said Paul Wiegner, recycling specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

About 35 of Wisconsin's 72 counties administer recycling programs, said Wiegner. He also said some municipalities opt not to participate in their county's program.

The city of La Crosse has some apprehension about a countywide recycling program, said city Public Works Director Dale Hexom.

In 2007, the city of La Crosse received a grant for $252,700 from the DNR to run the recycling program. The grant helps fund collection and other functions, said Wiegner. The city reported its eligible costs of the program were about $338,400 for that year, he said.

Hexom wondered what would happen to the DNR funding if the county took over, as well as how much responsibility the county would take on and the level of service it would provide.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions if the county takes this on," said Hexom.

If the county took over and administered the recycling program for all 18 municipalities, then the county would apply for the grant and receive one grant check, said Wiegner.

Very likely, the municipalities, including the city of La Crosse, would sign contracts with the county regarding how much of that grant money they would get, he said.

Exactly how much money the county would get to administer the program would not be calculated until the DNR received the grant request, said Wiegner.

Eau Claire uses countywide program

Eau Claire County is among those in the state with a countywide recycling program.

The program always has been country-run, said Eau Claire County Recycling Coordinator Jon Tulman. "I am a firm believer it is a much better thing," he said.

Tulman doesn't think the personal service is lost, either.

Eau Claire County has 11 drop-off stations across the county, all staffed by local people, said Tulman. So he's not the only one carrying the recycling message, he said.

As recycling coordinator for more than 14 years, Tulman said he has developed an expertise about recycling -- such as purchasing equipment, promotion and education -- that some municipal officials who juggle several roles don't have.

"It makes a real big difference how effective and efficient your program is dollar-wise if you know what you are doing," said Tulman.

A larger service area also allows him to secure more competitive recycling contracts, he said.

In Minnesota, recycling always is coordinated at the county level or higher, Tippetts said.

"We recycle less than our counterparts in Minnesota, but we have 10 times as many people responsible for the recycling message," said Tippetts.

Community collaborations

Officials are doing more to make recycling efforts more uniform throughout the county and even in areas beyond the county line, Tippetts said.

La Crosse County brought in a national expert last week who talked about how collaboration can reduce cost and improve service, Tippetts said.

The county also approved a solid waste management plan in June that agreed to discuss ways to coordinate on recycling in the future, he added.

Perhaps the largest countywide coordination effort so far was 10 municipalities teamed up with Buffalo County on recycling brochures. The brochures have the same general information on the cover, with municipality-specific information inside.

This is the third year for the brochure and each year more municipalities join in, said Jason Gilman, land use and development director for the city of Onalaska.

"We are looking at ways to provide a means for all municipalities to standardize or unify the message about recycling so there is less confusion for the public," Gilman said.

Another way to standardize may be using similar collection trucks across the county, rather than some with automated arms and others that require a worker to manually dump the materials, said Tippetts.

This would improve the system by getting area municipalities to share the cost of a specialized truck fleet for automated collection, which costs less, said Tippetts.

Standardizing doesn't mean every recycling program has to be exactly the same, said Tippetts. Instead, the county could come up with standards that make sense for the populations served and then try to apply those to similar municipalities.

"We don't need 18 cookie cutters. We probably need two, three or four," said Tippetts.

Did you know?

--"Tin cans" are only 2 percent tin -- the rest is steel.

--Wisconsin residents and businesses have diverted 22,061,271 tons to recycling and composting since 1990. That's 8,462 per person recycled or composted, according to DNR information.

--Wisconsin's recycling reduces as much emissions as taking nearly 700,000 passenger cars off the road, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

--Mulching yard waste or letting it stay on the lawn, rather than bagging it for removal, saves the city of La Crosse $300,000 a year on yard waste collections.

KJ Lang can be reached at (608) 791-8226 or [email protected]


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