By CHARLES CANTRELL
MESSY BUSINESS: Much of Greater Tulsa trash ends up in the Quarry Landfill pictured above. It’s a gigantic hole northeast of Tulsa left after millions of tons of limestone were removed.
CHARLES CANTRELL for GTR Newspapers
Editor’s note: Change is always hard, and judging from the current furor in Tulsa, altering trash collection service to meet today’s challenges is no exception. Because many of the communities of Greater Tulsa will eventually need to look at, or are in the process of looking at new ways to deal with all that trash, thought it might be helpful to look at the City Of Tulsa’s situation. When these types of changes happen, questions arise. How and why are we changing? Why is it costing more? How is it going to work? How did it get so confusing?
For a city its size, Tulsa along with surrounding communities, generate lots of trash. The City Of Tulsa alone provides about 43 pounds a week per household. Cumulatively that amounts to more than 130,000 tons a year. Add in surrounding communities and you have – well, a lot. It all has to go somewhere, and someone has to take it there. You would think it’s simple, but you would be wrong.
First one can look at the model that has provided much of the trash service that has evolved in the City Of Tulsa over the past 32 years. From this we can learn something about the dynamics of urban trash collection and why change is sometimes necessary.
Tulsa’s current service is a consortium of more than 40 independent contractors working under the name of Tulsa Refuse Inc (). The company has been under contract with the city since 1979, offering residential refuse collection, backyard or curb-side pick up and removal of any amounts and all kinds of trash twice a week depending on which contractor is servicing your area. Contractors own their own trucks, hire and fire their employees and most will haul off just about any type of trash one puts out including solid and green waste. This fee for service model is like most in the surrounding communities of Tulsa and results in everyone paying the same regardless of the amount of trash service needed. Consequently those generating small amounts of trash in effect subsidize those who generate much larger amounts. Add to this the disincentive of an extra charge for those who choose to recycle (recycling, by the way, is a practice that significantly minimizes the volume of solid waste trash sent to a landfill) and you’ve got a system that is pretty much the opposite of what is needed because it doesn’t effectively address growing land use problems, rate fairness and even misses the economic opportunity recycling offers.
A unique aspect of Tulsa’s trash services was the well-over $10-million trust fund that grew out of compliance with requirements governing the issuance of municipal bonds to fund construction of a trash-to-energy plant in West Tulsa. In order for the city to sell bonds to construct the plant (see below for information on trash-to-energy plant), it was required to set aside funding as added protection to bond holders. That fund remained after the construction of the plant was completed and was used to subsidize the cost of refuse collection through and hold down rates to customers. This made everyone happy for the time being, but it was a temporary fix because it depended on a finite fund that would eventually go away, or as people like to say it was at best a solution that “kicked the can down the road.” It also gave the false impression to those not in the know (and that was just about everyone) that the stable rates they were paying actually covered the cost of trash service when it actually did not. It also fueled the notion that trash collection was somehow immune from increases in cost experienced by other services or enterprises.
Adding to this was the once impending crises of limited landfill capacity faced by residential or commercial haulers. That problem was addressed with the construction of the Walter B. Hall Resource Recovery facility, and again when ample landfill capacity was made available to the city. But landfill capacity will always be a long-term problem. Landfills at best become pretty nasty places that have the potential to contaminate ground water, catch fire causing subterranean uncontrollable fires as was the case in one Tulsa landfill, or they can simply render land unusable for generations.
In an attempt to deal with the contingency of impending challenges facing the city’s trash service, Mayor Kathy Taylor during her tenure as mayor, commissioned a study to make recommendations to Tulsa Authority for Recovery of Energy () as to how best to address trash collection in the future. is a trust authority formed in 1977 to fund and create the trash-to-energy plant. The results of the study pointed out many of the problems associated with the existing, antiquated “fee for service” system described above. A fee for service rate structure provides little to no incentive for users to recycle materials and thus reduce landfill demand. In addition as mentioned before, fee for service is inherently unequal regarding usage of the service.
It should be noted here that recycling is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, creating markets for used materials pulled from refuse streams by start up companies. These companies are creating jobs in communities all over America. Any trash system that doesn’t seek to recover materials deemed valuable by this growing industry is foregoing an economic opportunity for its community.
The report recommended a sea-change approach to trash service wherein a new model, best described as a “fee for use” model. It is a tiered system that charges rates based on volume of trash generated in a household. This approach sets in place incentives for households to minimize their trash output. Add to this an optional recycling service that doesn’t cost extra and you have in effect turned the old service on its head. The model rewards those who recycle if they choose and provides lower rates to customers with smaller volumes of trash such as single occupant and fixed income households. Customers can still get the same level of service they want including the removal of large volumes of bagged leaves and grass clippings (green waste) but they will have to pay more because their demand on the service is greater.
In brief, this is the trash service now about to be available in Tulsa. The broader scope of area communities will likely look to Tulsa to see how well this new service works and if it delivers on its promises to minimize trash volume and maximize customer satisfaction in determining how they will approach future trash service needs in their community. There will likely always be those who don’t like change and yearn for the good old days, but as far as trash service is concerned in today’s world, that train has left the station.
Trash To Energy is Back
Originally, a trash to energy plant to handle Tulsa’s 800 tons of daily trash was a good idea, but the success of such a plant was predicated on high natural gas prices. At the time the plant idea was conceived in the late 1970s, natural gas had followed oil prices upward creating the bubble that would burst in the early 1980s. A plant fueled by trash at that time could produce inexpensive steam energy making it economically viable because it could compete with natural gas as an energy source and be sold to local businesses.
In that historic context, the plant was a great idea and provided cheap energy at a time when energy from fossil fuels was skyrocketing. It also reduced the volume of trash considerably to increase the life span of landfill space. This was important at the time because projections for the state’s permitting of landfills was becoming increasingly more difficult to come by due to environmental and other concerns.
In addition the ash residue from the plant could be sold as a material commodity used in road construction. And finally reducing the trash to ash minimized the environmental impact associated with traditional landfill solid waste disposal. It was a great idea and for a while worked well.
But when world petroleum prices plummeted in the first half of the 1980s, natural gas prices followed and became a competitively-priced energy source to the steam energy produced at the plant. Adding to the plant’s woes during the down turn in oil prices was the need for costly upgrading of the facilities smoke stacks with more efficient scrubbers to comply with clean air standards. Suddenly the once great idea became a liability. It didn’t take long for Covanta, the company contracted by the owners, , to operate the plant, to find itself underwater and the plant was shut down and Covanta filed for bankruptcy. A new operating company was sought by the owners. In the meantime the city was left holding the bag on the revenue bonds sold to build the facility. To make matters a little worse, the City was contractually locked into a “tipping fee” rate of $23 a ton. (Tipping fee is the cost per ton to dump trash at a designated landfill site.) Only after the revenue bonds were paid off was the city released from the tipping fee obligation. It was a bad time, but better days were ahead.
After paying off the bond debt, the city was contractually released to take bids on lowering tipping fee rates. At the State Capital, reluctance to issue new land fill permits had eased considerably and new landfill capacity was available. The city was able to secure a sizeable reduction in tipping fee costs at a newly designated landfill owned by Quarry Landfill. But this cut off the “fuel stock,” better known as trash, to the trash-to-energy plant and resulted in a shutdown of the facility in 2007.
Recently, in response to a City of Tulsa’s request for bids, Covanta, the once operators of the trash-to-energy plant facility, bid a very low $12 per ton rate and as a consequence procured the contract from the City of Tulsa thus once again providing ample fuel stock for the furnaces. Consequently the trash to energy plant is now back in business. Lo and behold: a once great idea has found new life.