recycling, stealing & fees

Brent Finnegan -- May 20th, 2008

Yesterday TV3 ran a story about stealing aluminum from residential recycling bins. The story claimed that, “the city makes money on the items it recycles, so if someone steals, that’s lost revenue for Harrisonburg.”

While it’s true that the city sells that used material to a recycling company, it’s not true that the city makes money on the program. The money coming in is less than the cost of the program.

Virginia cities are actually required by state law to recycle at least 25 percent of waste generated.

Last week, a DNR story stated, “The council also approved increases in water rates and the sewer authority fee, and initiated a $10 service fee for recycling for customers who do not have their trash picked up by the city.”

I asked Information Officer Miriam Dickler about that, and she clarified it with some additional info:

Beginning July 2008, all utility bill customers will notice a new feature on their bill. Instead of a refuse collection fee, there will be a Solid Waste Management fee. The Solid Waste Management fee helps subsidize the cost for curbside refuse collection and disposal plus recycling collection, handling and shipping. For customers who currently have city waste collection services nothing will change on the water bill except the language used to denote solid waste fees […]

There is no new fee or rate increase proposed for existing refuse customers. Residents that receive curbside pickup are currently paying $20.00 for refuse collection. For these residents the only change will be a change in nomenclature on the bill. After July there will be a Solid Waste Management fee instead of a refuse fee. The recycling program has been and will continue to be will be subsidized with funds from all customers regardless of whether they choose to recycle or not. […]

The City does allow apartment complexes and residents with private refuse collection service to “opt out” of paying the $10.00 per month fee, but must first meet the following requirements:

1. The complex must maintain a Solid Waste Management Plan approved by the City
2. Report on an annual basis solid waste tonnage disposed of
3. Reflect on an annual basis and certify that at least 25% of all solid waste disposed of was recycled

There’s a list of what can be recycled on the city website.

68 Responses to “recycling, stealing & fees”

  1. Kevin says:

    I thought it was extremely unprofessional for the City’s Solid Waste Manager (title?) to show up on TV3 yesterday dressed in a sweatshirt and “mom” jeans. Maybe it’s just me, but if I were being interviewd on live TV I’d try not to look so “trashy”!

  2. Gxeremio says:

    What a crock. As townhouse owners, we pay quite a bit to our neighborhood association for our neighborhood dumpster to get picked up. And we recycle because we care about the environment…now we have to pay an additional $120 a year for the city to “steal our trash”. Maybe we should start recycling it ourselves to offset the cost of this new fee.

  3. finnegan says:

    I would assume the new fees were enacted because of two factors: the 25 percent state law, and the fact that the city is losing (or not making) money on the recycling program.

    My understanding is that state laws allow municipalities to require residents to recycle (as is the case in cities like Seattle) but Harrisonburg has opted not to demand it of residents.

  4. Miriam says:

    Residents of the city who receive public trash collectoion also pay for that service. The current rate is 20 dollars a month, billed with water or 240 dollars a year.

    Homeowners who get city solid waste removal pay for recycling regardless of whether or not they have a bin which we certainly hope is an incentive to get a bin and start recycling. Finnegan is right, we could manadate recycling, but instead hope that citizens will choose to participate in the program.

    The same will be true for those people who do not recycle but have private collection. It does cost money to administer the recycling program, which is only partially offset by any revenue from the sale of the recyclables. It would be ideal if the program could sustain itself through revenue, but it simply cannot.

    Recycling as a private community is an option. Filing a solid waste management plan with the city as a property owners association and having private recycling collection is perfectly acceptable to the city, you can contact the public works department for more information, 434-5928.

    By filing a solid waste management plan that includes recycling, a community is exempted from the cost but also must provide collection of both recyclables and non recyclables.

    As to Mrs. Shifflett’s attire when on camera, I think it is perfectly appropriate to appear on television as one dresses for the job that they do. Meki is the dminstrator of our solid waste collection, and wearing jeans and a sweatshirt in that line of work seems legitimate to me.

  5. Josh says:

    Gxeremio: Maybe your neighborhood could setup some sort of recycling bins next to the dumpster and foot the bill for everyone? I wonder if the city has considered a special “group plan” for these sorts of situations?

    It’s a shame that recycling ends up being a burden in that residents have to weigh caring about the environment (win) vs extra bills (loss) and this somehow can’t be a win-win situation for everyone. I would stop recycling altogether if I had to pay for the privilege. :)

  6. Gxeremio says:

    Doesn’t it seem a bit unequal to assume that the cost of collecting recycling four times a month is 50% of the cost of collecting recycling PLUS trash four times a month as well as special collections of trash at other times in the month? How many residents are affected by this new $10 a month fee? Of those, how many even USE the “service”?

    It’s upsetting because as my wife has posted before we try to minimize our use of city resources in several respects but still end up paying an unfair share. I believe she’s commented about the minimum water and sewer fee, and it goes for the minimum electric fee too. City policies essentially punish those who use less than the “standard” amount of electricity or water. If billing is the cost, why not bill on a quarterly basis instead? What incentives are we offering to get people their cost to the city?

  7. Gxeremio says:

    *to get people to lower their cost to the city?

  8. seth says:

    as to fairness in what we pay for the amenities of civilization, you may be right that we could do better.

    to me though, this thread is more about the unravelling of the great greener is cheaper myth. maybe far down the road we’ll reap the benefits if we can really get everyone on the same page. for now though it’s going to cost us to do what’s right. we’re going to have to be willing to foot the bill and stop pretending as if our attempts to save the earth are going to save everyone a ton of money.

  9. Kevin says:

    Miriam – Yes, I’m sure Ms. Shifflett just finished her afternoon shift picking up garabage…my bad!

    Because I don’t live in turkey town, I really do not have any thing of substance to add to this debate, execpt that I believe that Ms. Shifflett could have “geared up” better for her on-camera interview. but charging an additional $10 per month for recycling is insane!

  10. Bryan says:

    OMG! did you guys see what she was wearing?

  11. Gxeremio says:

    You should see what the city’s lifeguard program director wears to interviews!

  12. Miriam says:

    I would encourage any city resident to find out more about the whys nd whats of the city to participate in the Harrisonburg Citizen Academy.

    Our next session begins in September and I will open the application period in mid June or early July. A number of hburgnews readers and commenters have participated and I hope found it useful in helping explain how the city runs.

    Also, my phone number is 432-7701 and my email is I am happy to try to help you sort out your questions about or concerns with the city.

  13. finnegan says:

    Several hburgnews bloggers (myself included) have gone through the Citizen Academy.


  14. Bubby says:

    Recycling in Virginia is really designed to conserve expensive landfill space. City residents are currently charged $62/ton to throw stuff away, and that price most certainly will rise. While conserving resources is a laudable goal, preventing the spread of dangerous and expensive landfills with their long-term maintenance costs is critical. Monitoring, maintaining, and cleaning up a landfill continue to cost municipalities long after they no longer can take in waste. Many Counties in Virginia pay for both – closed landfill clean-up, AND tipping fees at someone else’s landfill.

    Long term, recycling builds markets for recycled materials that help stabilize costs (unlike a landfill). Many municipalities have begun charging by waste volume – forcing waste minimization and recycling. Much of the cost of recycling is due to the labor intensive materials handling, storage, and shipping.

  15. Scott Rogers says:

    seth: “to me though, this thread is more about the unravelling of the great greener is cheaper myth. maybe far down the road we’ll reap the benefits if we can really get everyone on the same page. for now though it’s going to cost us to do what’s right. we’re going to have to be willing to foot the bill and stop pretending as if our attempts to save the earth are going to save everyone a ton of money.”

    I agree — and I really enjoyed a commentary on this that I recently read in the Fine Homebuilding magazine. Here is an excerpt…

    My wife and I decided not to have children. We just couldn’t make the numbers work. From prenatal care through college tuition, we were looking at half a million dollars. Minimum. And it would be 25 years before that investment would even begin to show a return, let alone pay us back. Kids made no sense.

    I’m joking, of course. Looking just at the monetary cost of having kids not only ignores other costs—a parent’s time, for instance— but more important, it fails to account for the tremendous emotional rewards paid out over a lifetime. No one in their right mind would decide whether to have children based solely on the financial equation. The issue is more complicated.

    So is green building.

    And here is the link.

  16. Benjamin says:

    If I recall, the idea for the change in billing was due to the large amount of time and City resources it took to collect recycling from all of the off-campus student housing on Port Republic and Neff (lots of glass and aluminum). None of these apartments have City refuse collection, but many of the residents use the recycling services.

    As to the sweatshirt comment, from my personal experience reporters don’t usually warn people of when they show up.

  17. seth says:

    i like that scott.
    if you’re interested in green buildings and leed certification and whatnot, there’s a really good documentary called ‘greening of southie.’ it’s about the maclellan building, one of the first and most ambitious green buildings in boston. a very realistic look at the challenges of green building and why it’s important.

  18. Scott Rogers says:

    Seth — I recently heard of that documentary, but haven’t watched it yet. The developers of Urban Exchange are members of the Green Building Council, and are incorporating many green building concepts into that new project.

  19. Thanh says:

    Gxeremio says: “It’s upsetting because as my wife has posted before we try to minimize our use of city resources in several respects but still end up paying an unfair share.”

    Gxeremio, there is a large total cost to providing these services. No matter how much you as an individual reduce your usage of services, like city water, it still costs money to operate and maintain things like water pumps, pipes, etc (there’s infrastructure and energy costs) so that when you want water to come out of your tap its there. And in this country, although we don’t share all, we do share a lot of costs. Anyway, the cost of City services is shared just like it is with education. I do not have children, but I still pay taxes that help provide services for the community. And I’m okay with that.

    As for refuse and recycling costs, I don’t know the exact numbers for the cost of operating each of the recycing and refuse trucks that drive around the city, but I can imagine that they follow the same routes and that the milage would be the same, and thats a large operating cost. (Note: The trucks that pick up residential trash and recycling are separte. It has to do with separation and how each operates, the refuse trucks have a compactor.)

    And I have to second what Bubby says about “Recycling in Virginia is really designed to conserve expensive landfill space.” Monitoring landfills is ongoing and expensive and the space landfills take up is a loss of valuable land.

    Anyway, if anyone has questions about recycling or trash please visit or call 434-5928. You can also call or email me directly, same number, email:

  20. Gxeremio says:

    Thanh, thanks for the civics lesson. ;-)

    In December, you wrote: “I imagine some of these costs can’t get any cheaper due to adminstrative costs of sending a person out to read the meters, to drive around to pick up trash and recycling (whether you put it out or not they still have to drive around town), handling billing, and mailing out bills and receiving payment – so I believe these costs are justified.” Those costs can be managed and reduced, for example by checking the meter and sending a bill quarterly rather than monthly, at least on “low use” accounts.

    $120 a year (the cost of this new fee to me and my neighbors) is more than the average increase in housing assessments this year. It’s more than the average family would pay from a 4% increase on the restaurant tax. It’s a big, hidden tax hike. I understand that Council saw this as a way to get some money from student housing, where three or four students might share the burden. But a lot of people of low and moderate income live in places that don’t use city trash pickup. I’m going to see if we can get our community to “opt out” as Miriam described above – though I don’t think the city would benefit from us doing so, unfortunately. Law of unintended consequences?

  21. Gxeremio says:

    To clarify part of that last comment, $120 is more than the increased TAXES from housing reassessments this year, which according to the DNR article went up $83.

  22. Gxeremio says:

    The head of our housing association, Don Plank, has already responded to my initial query. Here’s what he said:

    “The problem is that they set incredibly high requirements for an
    approved recycling plan. I’ve talked with the city several times already
    to see what can be done to establish an approved plan. Currently the
    requirements are:

    – have to turn in total weight of collected during the year
    – have to turn in total weight of recycled trash collected during the
    – these weights need to demonstrate that at least 25% of the total
    weight has been recycled

    Currently nobody in the city has an approved recycling plan. I can see

    He added that private subdivisions save the city money is several ways like paying for their own lighting, road repair, and snow removal, yet we pay the same taxes on the value of our houses as other people who receive those services from the city.

  23. Thanh says:

    The City has to report total weights to the Virginia DEQ each year. That’s how the State determines if the City as a whole community meets the 25% required recycling rate. City staff calls/sends letters around to all commercial businesses for this information. JMU and EMU also provide this data. Commerical waste collectors, ie. Green Earth, Waste Management, have to weigh all of their trucks before they unload waste – they drive over large scales. City trucks do the same before unloading waste and recyclables.

    My best guess is that no one has an approved recycling plan because this new rule was only recently decided by City Council, and it doesn’t become effective until July 1st. I expect that many complexes and HOAs will ask or make arrangements with their waste management company to provide recycling services if they don’t already, and to provide the complexes with the information needed for reporting purposes.

    I really believe that recycling is an important and I am willing, and I do, pay for the service.

    I strongly encourage you, Gxeremio, to be a part of this year’s Citizen Academy. I also went through it and found it to be very valuable.

  24. Thanh says:

    (continued) I think the Citizen Academy will help you, and others, better understand city services and why things are the way they are. I can’t say that you’ll agree with everything that’s done, but at least you’ll have a better understanding, and maybe can make suggestions for improvement. Just my two cents. :)

  25. Gxeremio says:

    Yes, I do intend to try to sign up for the academy if my schedule permits. I appreciate how responsive many in city government are (like you and Miriam) and as a city employee myself (in the school system) I know it’s usually not the same people making the decisions that deal with the fallout directly. But this particular fee increase is surprising because it was kind of sneaked (snuck?) through. I appreciate finnegan’s work finding out more about it too.

  26. Bubby says:

    Gxeremio: I’m assuming that with vigorous recycling in your HOA that you can reduce your trash disposal fees – they are typically based in part on weight. You should also consider prohibiting the disposal of large items like furniture, and building materials, requiring homeowners to have them hauled off at their own expense.

    In the County we pay $5/month for limited recycling and the convenience of curbside pickup (Green Earth) is worth the cost.

  27. eso says:

    Does Harrisonburg actually achieve the 25% recycling they require of private plans?

  28. Thanh says:

    The Harrisonburg community acheives greater than the 25% recycling rate. I’ll have to double check and get back to you all on the “exact” number, but I think that the City last year, in 2007, increased its rate from the previous year and acheived a 30-some percent recycling rate. (I quote “exact” because it is true that determining recycling rates is not perfect science/math.) You can go to this site,, and view the DEQ’s report for 2006 which details Virginia localities’ recycling rates. Keep an eye out for the 2007 report.

    I still think that we can do better…

  29. Gxeremio says:

    Frankly, I’m a bit skeptical…it feels like 30%, or even 25%, is a high number for recycling when I think about typical waste I see produced. Looking over the report for 2006, I see paper makes up a big chunk of the recycled weight, as do metal, yard waste, waste wood, and in the supplemental category ash.

    Which businesses, neighborhoods or city agencies are putting out the most paper and metal that ends up being recycled by the city?

    Are the yard waste, waste wood and ash “recyclables” generated mostly by city maintenance operations? I noticed on the city’s yard debris collection webpage that leaves and Christmas trees are used for city landscaping…does that count into the total of recycled tonnage? Could an HOA use the same methods to up its percentage of “recycled” waste in a city-certified plan?

    What are the techniques for gaming the recycled percentages that localities are using? How much of what’s counted as recycled would actually never end up in landfills anyway?

  30. JGFitzgerald says:

    One of the ways a locality can boost the recycling numbers is to count the asphalt scraped up in the milling and repaving of highways. The asphalt is later re-used for such things as, once upon a time, covering the cart paths at the golf course.

    This is my favorite recycling story.

  31. Bubby says:

    Back when the DEQ was getting started with the recycling quotas I was helping muni’s figure out how to comply. One County, I think it was Pulaski met their entire 25% recycling quota by recycling wood waste from the large furniture factory. They offered very little in the way of household recycling, some containers at their waste collection centers.

    If you want to to run your own recycling plan you just have to be able to quantify the stuff diverted from disposal. That presupposes that you know what the make-up of your waste stream is.

  32. Gxeremio says:

    It seems like the 25% law in question is a feel-good measure. Maybe a better law (“better” as in “more effective”) would be to reduce the per-capita waste from each community that ends up in landfills by some percentage instead.

  33. Bubby says:

    I would be surprised if Harrisonburg gets anywhere close to 25% of household waste recycled in the neighborhoods. They are most likely playing with percentages around things such as the asphalt recycling Joe offered. Stats always work best with larger data sets and your HOA is at disadvantage there.

  34. David Miller says:

    I’m confused about the argument, who is upset that they now have to pay for what I’ve always paid for?

  35. Gxeremio says:

    I already pay for what you pay for – trash removal. But as per an agreement between the city and my subdivision, I pay the HOA rather than the city for trash removal. Now I get to pay both.

  36. David Miller says:

    You moved into a townhouse with an HOA, take it up with them. Don’t argue with the city because your HOA isn’t giving you a fair deal. I pay for both already. Welcome to the city.

  37. Gxeremio says:

    What an odd response…oh well.

    I’m very happy with my HOA. And I like the city too. But I’m not crazy about quiet, big fee increases.

  38. Brian M says:

    Hey, Gxeremio.

    You said something a couple of days ago I wanted to ask about: “You should see what the city’s lifeguard program director wears to interviews!”

    Who is the city’s lifeguard program director and what was he/she wearing?

  39. Gxeremio says:

    It was a joke. :)

  40. Brian M says:

    :::launches water balloon at Gxeremio:::


  41. Bubby says:

    Who is the city’s lifeguard program director and what was he/she wearing?

    here she is.

  42. David Miller says:

    I personally like this arrangment because it means that the city is now charging users of its services. For years apt complexes and townhome “communities” have been “entitled” to this, no longer. That’s all.

  43. Brian M says:

    No such luck, Bubby. I’m sure no one works for the City Parks and Recreation that looks like that. Good try though.

  44. eso says:

    It seems to me if you wanted recycling, you’d make it beneficial to individuals. The people who agreed to separate their garbage you’d give some reduction in fees to. Say from $20 to $15.

    I look at the people around me and it’s nowhere close to 25% of the material recycled or even 25% of the people involved. Right now it’s just mainly the “Environment as Religion” people recycling. If you provide incentive: you’d get a lot more people involved, get more money from recycled material, and reduce cost by diverting material from the landfill.

  45. eso says:

    Except it’s not charging the users, it’s charging everybody. Some citizens such as Gxeremio have made arrangements with private companies to handle their waste. The City is still seizing their money. They’ve set the bar to “opt out” of seizing their money very high. Looking around, it’s clear to me that city doesn’t meet the 25% requirement “at the driveway” but they are requiring it of people to opt out? What a double standard.

  46. charlie chenault says:

    This thread has thoroughly confused me. The city wants recycling, and I do not know of a jurisdiction in the state that makes it any easier. Don’t worry about who shot John or percentages that no one can nail down, just do it because it is the right thing to do. I view the $10.00 fee as a charge on every resident of the city that gets a trash bill for the availability of this service whether you use it or not that supports a system that serves the public good. This is what all minimum fees are for. The glass half full people might say those who use this service get it for free. Does the analogy that you pay for fire protection, but hope you never use it ring a bell. If paying $10.00 for a service that I do not use is in the public interest, I am willing to pay it if I can afford it (I hope that is not socialism). People ask why we do not privatize our refuse collection. The reason is nobody wants to buy it because it comes with landfills and steam plants that no private business in its right mind would want. You will notice your private carrier does not own any of these locally. As for the quiet, big fee increases, may I suggest you view the clerk’s area of the city web page for council agendas. Apparently the individuals who attended the meeting where this tax, seizure, extortion, whatever, was considered to speak against it did. There was also an article in the DNR before the meeting that noted this would be considered. As for dealing with the fallout directly, I think all city employees know that council stands behind them, and we are always willing to take the heat. As far as I know, that is one of the reasons we are there. Joe – I bet we can get some of that recycled asphalt for the path to your putting green. I think it is time for a bicycle ride, and I apologize if this smells of a civics lesson.
    Yours in trash – Charlie

    Thanh’s analysis is very cogent.

  47. Del says:

    Charlie, thanks for posting on here.

  48. David Miller says:


    Well said, but i have to warn you that both trash pickup and firefighters represent a form of socialism. So do police and government in general. We just prefer to avoid the similarities.

  49. eso says:

    If it is an infrastructure item, why doesn’t it come in the general budget like fire protection instead of a “[mandatory] fee”. How are they going to charge the apartment complexes, per person, per unit, per sq foot … etc ?

    Harrisonburg squeaked by with a 25.4% overall recycling rate. (Page 8 of the 2006 report link Gx posted.) That’s after adjusting numbers for asphalt, Christmas trees, or whatever else. It just seems the “government” shouldn’t require private plans to meet a higher goal then they are.

    As it is, I’m perfectly happy to keep sending my trash to the dump. If there was some benefit to me, cost savings, maybe I’d consider it.

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