Size matters – and one-size solutions rarely fit all – especially in a diverse community like Orange County. That’s the gist of the latest controversy surrounding the new, blue recycling roll carts.
Staff writer Tammy Grubb recently reported how $1 million worth of 95-gallon recycling carts is a misfit for many. For some residents, they’re just too large. Plus narrow streets, trees, and cars in Meadowmont, Southern Village and elsewhere create obstacles for large collection trucks with automatic lifts. Now the county wants to bring the big roll carts to the unincorporated areas – where many homes have private roads and long, gravel driveways.
The dilemma highlights the need for choice and flexibility in future services. It’s especially pertinent as town and county leaders prepare to hash out the future of trash and recycling services.
It all started as a funding problem. The county can no longer levy curbside collection fees on town residents or force residents in unincorporated areas to pay for curbside recycling. Last year, the commissioners considered imposing a new district tax in the unincorporated areas, but residents pushed back. Turns out, most families don’t use curbside services, and those that do, prefer a flat fee.
It helps to look at how others provide choice and flexibility.
Towns in Wake County have offered single-stream recycling, where you toss everything into one container, for years. Raleigh residents can choose 65- or 95-gallon roll carts. Apex residents can choose small bins or 65-gallon roll carts. Recycling fees are half what Orange County charges. Wake County’s 11 convenience centers are free.
Many counties offer curbside recycling in their unincorporated areas. Service is optional or free. Catawba County, ranked best in the state, discounts trash collection fees for families who use curbside recycling (which is free). They sweeten the deal with backdoor service at no extra charge. That’s where small pickup trucks pick up trash and recycling at your door – rather than asking users to roll an unwieldy cart down a long gravel road. Since users have a choice, haulers are creative.
Convenience centers are important to this conversation, especially since Orange County is spending millions to “modernize” its centers. Most of us prefer either curbside recycling or convenience centers but have to pay for both. Fees are tiered based on where we live (town or county), rather than the services used.
Consider Chatham County. For $3.5 million, Chatham operates 12 centers, open six or seven days a week. For the same amount, Orange operates five centers, open four or six days a week. Chatham’s centers are free for families who pay for curbside collection services, whether they live in town or in unincorporated areas. That’s choice!
There’s more to this than choosing curbside or drop services, or the size of a bin, or a simple and transparent fee system. Although that would be a great start.
Imagine if local leaders explored ways to share services and infrastructure, and designed services based on need rather than jurisdiction? Could the town’s recycling program work in the suburban parts of the unincorporated areas? Why not co-locate the county’s Eubanks Convenience Center with a Chapel Hill Transfer station? Or co-locate the town and county departments? These are just a few ways our governments could work together to improve choice, flexibility and economics.
There are long term issues – like waste to energy or landfilling – which will take years to sort out. For now, we’d be well served if our governments worked together to understand our diverse service needs, and designed services that offer choice and flexibility, and an equitable way to pay for it.
Bonnie Hauser lives in rural Orange County