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Officials: Outcome of Macon recycling pilot favorable, no plans to expand program now

Macon’s three-month pilot of a full curbside recycling program has ended, but the service will continue to be offered to the two participating neighborhoods for now, officials say.

Richard Powell, Macon’s public works director, said he considers the pilot a success. Although its purpose was to gauge whether single-stream recycling would work citywide, Macon’s slim budget means that won’t be happening any time soon.

Single-stream recycling, which allows users to leave all major recyclables — except glass — at the curbside without sorting, is picking up speed in Georgia. Earlier this month the federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded the state’s Department of Community Affairs its 2009 Resource Conservation Challenge National Achievement Award for an innovative program that established single-stream recycling hubs throughout the state. The hubs were designed with the help of companies that process or reuse recyclables, which ensured that there would be a local market, said Jon Johnston, chief of the EPA materials management program for the Southeast.

Four of the hubs were established through a $2.2 million total grant from DCA. Two more, including one at Macon Iron, were achieved through private or public-private partnerships.

Hubs started through the grant are in Griffin, Valdosta, Savannah and Bulloch County, said Karen Vickers, DCA program coordinator for the office of environmental management.

Each hub is required to collect recycling from any interested local governments within a 50-mile radius, or a 75-mile radius in the case of Valdosta, she said.

At least six states, including Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, have expressed interest in duplicating the hub program, according to Vickers and Johnston.

Johnston noted that the South’s rural character often makes curbside recycling too expensive.

“The DCA program addresses areas that have historically been difficult, if not impossible, to serve,” Johnston said.

In Middle Georgia, the Macon Iron hub is processing single-stream recycling from Milledgeville and Macon. The Griffin hub receives recyclables from Lamar County and Barnesville, according to e-mails provided by Vickers.

Evan Koplin, vice president of Macon Iron, said more cities and counties might have signed up for single-stream recycling if the bottom hadn’t dropped out of the recycling market last year.

A May article in Business Week noted that prices for recyclables had plunged more than 60 percent in the previous nine months.

Koplin said the shrinking market led Macon Iron to lay off 35 percent of its work force, about 30 people, late last fall.

SMALL REVENUE STREAM

Macon Iron is paying Macon $25 a ton for the single-stream recycling generated from the InTown and Vineville neighborhoods as part of the pilot study, Koplin said.

Many recyclers had to switch from paying for recyclables to charging governments to process them, he said. Macon Iron was paying Southland Waste for recyclables collected in Bibb County, but had to ask the private hauler to choose between paying for the single-stream service or sorting the recyclables itself. Koplin said Southland chose the latter option.

Macon’s single-stream recycling experiment was funded by a $50,000 grant from the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority, which mostly covered the cost of carts for each household.

The pilot started in March and was set to last three months.

“I was pleasantly surprised” at the participation, Koplin said. He said the city is averaging about 4.5 tons of single-stream recycling a month.

Powell said taking the program citywide would cost about $3.6 million, including about $460,000 in recurring annual expenses for employee salaries (but not including benefits).

For now, Powell said the program funding for continuing the existing route is in Macon’s 2010 budget. He said the next step may be expanding into one or more other neighborhoods that are likely to have high participation rates.

Koplin said he has told the city he’ll continue to pay for the single-stream recyclables for at least a few more months.

“My whole reason for trying to do this was to get the city to go citywide,” he said. “I’m not going to continue indefinitely for just five to 10 tons a month.”

But even if Macon Iron charges for single-stream, the cost would probably be about $5 to $10 a month based on today’s prices, Koplin said.

He suggested that a subscription service, in which residents who want single-stream recycling at the curb can pay $5 or so a month, might be the answer.

But that raises questions about how the fee would be collected and whether prospective customers are concentrated in the same neighborhoods enough to be cost effective, Koplin noted.

Macon offered full curbside recycling from 1993 to 2004, for a required monthly fee of $5. But over time the amount tripled and was redirected to pay for garbage pickup.

Since 2004, Macon has continued curbside recycling of paper.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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