New Hanover County is on the verge of out-sourcing its trash operations.
The handling of county solid waste has been an in-house, self-funding operation for the last three years -- since the shuttering of Wastec, the county’s old incinerator. It’s a fundamental shift in approach to waste management that raises new questions for the county – such as whether recycling will be expanded to include curbside, countywide service.
It’s a bright, chilly December morning at the old Wastec facility on Highway 421 in New Hanover County. Joe Suleyman, the County’s Director of Environmental Management is demonstrating how the Household Hazardous Waste drop-off works.
“Now you’ll see where those traffic cones are, we’ve got one of those old-style gas station bells. That way if the attendant is in the back mixing up or bulking chemicals, he’ll get a little bell chime to let him know, hey, there’s a customer out front we need to take care of.”
Launched last May, the drop-off is free for county residents. And it’s one way Suleyman’s department is working to decrease the volume and toxicity of what goes into the landfill.
Beyond the drop-off site, a dump truck carrying recyclable material rolls into what used to be the Wastec Incinerator. Today, the structure looks more like a massive cement shell. Piles of cans, bottles, and plastics deposited here will eventually make their way onto a nearby conveyor belt where men dressed in neon green hats and shirts sort the material.
“In the past, the focus has been on getting as much of that waste collected and disposed of in landfills as possible to try to offset some of the fixed costs of the landfill and drive profitability. But today, it’s really being driven by businesses and communities that are very savvy about recycling.”
And that shift is forcing traditional disposal companies, including those bidding on the county contract, to find new ways to meet the demands of the public and stay profitable.
“What I’ve seen in my past in the private sector has always been that we’re going to offer recycling services because the customer demanded it and we want to make sure that we didn’t lose that customer on trash side by not being able or willing to provide those recycling services. So it was never seen as a large profit-maker.”
But given the prevailing corporate culture, and the fact that this area might not support a profitable recycling operation, Suleyman fears the county’s recent push towards more progressive waste management could stall.
“The reason why is that the recyclable material that’s collected throughout the county is very highly-fragmented. For example, the City of Wilmington takes their material to one processing facility. Local waste collection companies take it to another. The County, within my department, we bring it back to our facilities here. So, really, there is no large amount of volume that can really drive the need for the infrastructure necessary to process high volumes of material and drive the cost of processing down.”
Four potential vendors are vying for a contract with the County to take over its solid waste operations. All four are in the top 12 of the largest solid waste companies in the country, according to a well-known trade publication. Options like recycling and yard waste collection are not a required part of the bidding process, according to the Request for Proposal.
“We didn’t want to have a multitude of responses that would only be for recycling or only be for yard waste pick-up. We wanted companies that would, first and foremost, bid for the basic service – the transfer and disposal of our solid waste. And then they had the option of also including the other services.”
Beth Dawson is Vice Chair of the New Hanover County Commission. She and fellow Commissioner Tom Wolfe sit on the committee that will recommend the winning bidder for the County’s trash hauling.
“By dealing with companies who are environmentally responsible, they recognize that the customer base demands certain services, such as recycling… And down the line it is a responsible thing to do. And I believe the companies we deal with would be of that mindset.”
Bidders could include recycling and yard waste collection in their proposals. But whether a for-profit company can find a way to make those numbers work when faced with the highly-volatile market for recyclable materials is still a wide open question for Joe Suleyman.
County staff will evaluate the proposals after the January 31st deadline. They plan to recommend a vendor to County Commissioners at the March 10th meeting.