Can Tulsa evolve into a true recycling town?
By JAIME ADAME Urban Tulsa Writer
In Seattle, more than 70 percent of all material thrown out by single-family households is recycled. So far in Tulsa, less than 18 percent of household refuse has been diverted for recycling.
The City knows the number can be higher, stating in promotional materials that up to 80 percent of household waste can be recycled.
But it’s not easy to get to the level of Seattle or other cities well-known for their green ways. Such efforts have long been on the mind of Michael Patton, executive director for the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (MET).
“People do this because they like to,” Patton said on a warm November morning at the organization’s drop-off site near E. 35th St. and S. Sheridan Rd.
For sure, the city’s new recycling regime keeps recycling fully voluntary — other cities have sought to impose recycling mandates on households or fines for non-compliance — but it’s also bringing a bit of psychology into play, suggested Liz Hunt, a city spokeswoman.
She said that a few thousand city customers initially refused the 96-gallon recycling carts, despite not being charged any kind of recycling cart fee.
“Then they realized kind of the value it was, whether if they saw their neighbors doing it, or that it helped to reduce disposal costs,” Hunt said, explaining that some may have realized they can save money by throwing away less and recycling more. Under the new system, a customer’s bill is based in part on the size of trash cart they select.
The city has long offered curbside recycling, but did so with 18-gallon bins that required customers to sort materials. The proof of the sea change can perhaps be made most clear in the jump in the number of curbside recyclers. Before the new program went into effect, fewer than 16,000 participated in the city’s recycling program. Now, that number exceeds 112,000, Hunt said.
That doesn’t mean that only 16,000 households recycled, of course. Patton oversees the MET’s 13 recycling drop-off sites, which include five in Tulsa. Created in 1987 “because other things didn’t exist,” the MET works closely — and receives funding — from Tulsa’s suburbs to serve as a truly regional entity.
“I have to kiss everybody’s butt,” joked Patton, a voluble man comfortable speaking frankly about more than recycling statistics and business costs. The city’s focus now on boosting curbside recycling may mean a reduction in the roughly $600,000 allocation to the MET — and that amount makes up about 43 percent of the organization’s $1.4 million budget.
As far as changes in the level of the city’s financial support, “I think those discussions are going to be happening over the next year,” Hunt said.
The MET continues to be the primary recycling outlet for apartment-dwellers like Pat Briggs, an older woman who said she appreciated the assistance from workers to help her unload her recyclables.
For her, “this is the only place” to recycle except for a few paper receptacles scattered elsewhere, Briggs said.
Even larger cities generally have lower recycling rates for multi-family housing; Seattle’s recycling rate fell to about 30 percent for such housing in 2010, according to a city report outlining the recycling rates for various types of trash collection.
Apartment building owners work with private contractors to take away tenants’ trash in Tulsa, but Patton said the MET may potentially close some locations to shift closer to renters. Neighborhoods like Brookside and downtown, as well as E. 51st St., and S. Yale Ave., E. 71 St., and S. Mingo Rd. might all be a better focus for the MET, Patton said.
“In the big picture, what Tulsa is doing is a very smart decision,” he said.
But it’s also incomplete. For all city dwellers, the MET remains the only spot to drop off waste like motor oil and plastic shopping bags that aren’t accepted in the city recycling carts.
Patton also noted the MET’s pilot program accepting e-waste — “anything with a cord,” except for monitors. He said he hopes to make it permanent.
The MET also accepts old batteries. Patton said the disposal costs for such batteries alone can total $20,000 a year. “The average American will buy 17 batteries in December and January this year,” he said.
Those might be basic campaigns, but the MET has a history of creativity within the field of recycling. For example, the organization has publicized an effort to have campaign signs dropped off at recycling sites. “I call it litter on a stick,” Patton said of the signs.
As far as plastics — which the city does accept — “water bottles and pop bottles overwhelm everything else combined,” Patton said, who touted the jobs created for developmentally disabled workers to sort materials as another community benefit provided by the MET, which has roughly 120 contract workers and eight staff members, including Patton.
The organization may very well continue to take on an expanded educational role, he said, noting recent efforts to teach Tulsans about composting.
Overall, he described reducing the amount of solid waste that winds up being burned or taken to a landfill as the group’s main goal. “It’s not come to the MET,” Patton said.
As far as the City, Hunt said the goal doesn’t boil down to a percentage.
“We do not have any type of diversion goals at this time, but we are very pleased with how Tulsans are responding to recycling,” Hunt said, adding, “It’s still going to take a few more months for folks to settle into their disposal habits.”
Patton praised the new recycling landscape in Tulsa, calling the best for “hundreds of miles” around.
The struggle continues to win over those reluctant to recycle, however.
“We have to convince people that that item is more valuable than trash,” Patton said.
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