The city of Fort Smith will temporarily suspend recycling in one of many efforts to protect staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many city departments are having as many employees as possible work from home.
Starting Friday (March 20), certain parts of city offices and buildings will be closed to the public, said Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman. Departments such as streets, utilities and sanitation will adjust staffing and activities in order to protect staff from infection, Dingman said.
“We are splitting our (sanitation) staff in half, sending half home. But we still need to make certain we keep our streets clear,” Dingman said.
By splitting the staff, the city is ensuring that if the worst was to happen and city sanitation employees were to contract the COVID-19 virus and become sick, there would still be half the staff who were not exposed able to continue trash collection. But in order for it to work with just half the staff there to run collection, residential sanitation trucks will only pick up trash using the automated trucks beginning Monday (March 23) and continuing through April 3. No yard waste nor recycling will be collected during that time.
“We won’t be running the trucks that typically collect those,” Dingman said, noting there also will be changes in industrial and commercial collection.
Residents who want to hold their recyclables to be collected once the suspension is lifted should not put out their city-issued 64-gallon recycle cart. If those 64-gallon carts are put out for collection, they will be collected with the automated trucks and collected with regular trash, Dingman said.
“Residents should not be alarmed if they see the automated trucks emptying the recycling carts with the regular carts. It will all be collected together for these two weeks,” he said.
In a memo Wednesday (March 18) to Dingman and City Administrator Carl Geffken, Kyle Foreman, director of sanitation, said in order to “guarantee the continuity of essential services during the COVID-19 outbreak, certain operations would be suspended for two weeks. Those include residential recycling collection; residential yard waste collection; residential bulky waste collection; cart maintenance and delivery; commercial recycling collection; commercial cardboard collection, Saturday commercial collection and dumpster maintenance and delivery.”
Landfill access will be limited to those customers with landfill charge accounts and will be closed to those who pay with cash, check or credit card, the memo said. Saturday landfill hours will be discontinued and access to Stone Park and the landfill will be closed for the next two weeks.
“This will allow the department to ensure we have adequate staff to collect and dispose of commercial, industrial, and residential garbage. This timetable can and/or will be moved up or extended depending on circumstances at the time,” Foreman said.
Dingman said the suspension of recycling was not being done because the rise of cost in recycling.
“It’s true it does cost more to recycle, but we have a (recycling contract), so that does not affect us yet,” Dingman said.
In January 2018, China enacted a policy banning the import of most plastics and materials headed for its recycling processors, which had handled more than half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past 25 years, according to a study published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
By January of this year, China’s plastics imports plummeted by 99%, “leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban,” the report said.
In the U.S., the average price of used corrugated cardboard fell 85% in two years to $28 per ton in August 2019, a report by Bloomberg stated.
With fewer buyers, recycling companies have moved to charging cities more to recycle. According to a 2019 New York Times article, Philadelphia now burns about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy.
“In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill” the article said.
These aren’t just examples of a handful of cities giving up on recycling. According to news reports, many, many cities across the country have stopped recycling.
“Due to rising operation costs and little payoff, hundreds of towns and cities across the country have either put restrictions on accepted materials or have cancelled public recycling programs, like curb-side pick-up, altogether,” states a report on the HOBI International website.
Fort Smith has a contract with a processing company for recycling into July, Dingman said. Foreman broached the subject of changes in recycling at the Oct. 29 and the Jan. 14 board of directors study sessions. At an Oct. 29 study session, Foreman said switching to every other week recycling and yard waste collection would save the sanitation department money. The every other week plan would mean recycling and yard waste would be picked up two times per month.
“Currently this is being done weekly with seven rear-end-loader trucks and 14 employees,” Foreman wrote in a memo dated Jan. 8.
Switching to every other week collection would cut the recycling collection to three trucks with six employees and yard waste to five trucks with 10 employees. The number of full-time employees would decrease from 27 to 23, Foreman wrote. Also, the department could take two trucks off its capital improvement plan, he said.
“If we did nothing else, besides this, this move would save the department $338,000 per year,” he said in the memo.
Foreman also presented other changes that could save the department money including a bulky tree collection service that would be a scheduled service and include a small fee; the option of residents purchasing a 96-gallon yard waste cart that would allow them to hold their yard waste for two weeks instead of one; and requiring compost be put in paper not plastic bags which would cut the cost of city workers having to remove compost from bags at the landfill.