Most of the People Some of the Time

If recycling is so popular, why can’t we seem to get it going?

You would think that when more than 80 percent of the people agree on something, it wouldn’t be too difficult to persuade the other 20 percent to get behind it. Unfortunately, when it comes to recycling our young city that loves to tout its forward-looking nature is happy to embrace the past.

For more than two years, Republic Services has been implementing pilot programs that have shifted the Valley’s traditional twice-a-week trash collections to a single day when two 96-gallon bins—one for recycling and one for trash—are picked up on the same day. Some 72,000 homes have traded in their red, white and blue plastic recycling bins for the larger version. The approach has been working; the recycling rate has climbed from about 6 percent to more than 30 percent in areas that got the larger bins.

North Las Vegas, an early adopter in 2008, saw an 83 percent approval rate in a sampling of 40,000 pilot-program homes. In December, the North Las Vegas City Council gave its blessing to institute the program throughout the city.

But the wheels of change turn slowly. Even if the rest of the municipalities in the county got behind it today it would take four years or more to implement the recycling program to the roughly 500,000 homes throughout the Valley, says Bob Coyle, Republic Services’ vice president of government relations.

“There are these people out there who are saying, ‘My birthright is to have twice-a-week trash service. … I have it written on my baptismal certificate,’” Coyle says with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Ironically, the biggest problem may be the quiet, satisfied people who embrace the program.

“The easiest roll-out we’ve had has been in Henderson,” he says. “My sense is that when Henderson began growing in the early ’90s, it had a much bigger influx of people from California and Arizona, places that already had once-a-week trash service. It’s hard to get those people energized compared to the guy that’s complaining that he’s going to lose the twice-a-week service. It’s hard to get them to say, ‘Shut that guy up!’”

District E Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is one of those vocal opponents of the new program. “My constituents have spoken very clearly,” Giunchigliani says. “We don’t want to give up twice-a-week trash in lieu of picking up recycling. We’re not saying we’re not supportive of recycling. What it comes down to is the old history on franchise agreements. Enough people still remember the deals that were given.”

For a long time people have been complaining about a monopoly situation with Republic Services, dating back to contracts awarded to Republic’s predecessor, Silver State Disposal, and its twice-a-week services that guaranteed future business for the trash hauler. Giunchigliani acknowledges that her constituents’ long memory may be standing in the way of progress.

“It’s an older area of town, and a lot of people remember those contracts,” she says.

Her solution has been to suggest that Republic provide the 96-gallon recycling containers to customers while maintaining twice-weekly service.

“I’m a firm believer in helping people to be a part of the solution. Don’t just do something to them. If you want to be successful, help them step into it,” she says.

But her plan might prove too expensive. Republic says the new recycling bins and special trucks to pick them up would cost $80 million to $90 million if the once-a-week program were to be implemented Valley-wide. But once-a-week service would save the trash hauler enough to cover the additional costs without passing along a rate increase. Republic says it can’t add the expense of the bins and make no other cost-saving changes without raising fees.

So cities are moving forward cautiously, conducting surveys and getting more public input. Henderson, which rolled out its program to 24,000 homes in November and December and is seeing a 30.2 percent recycling rate and positive reviews so far, will be seeking public input at the end of this year on the pilot program.

“It gets to a point where how many pilot programs do you have to have to see that something works?,” Coyle says. “When do you get 80 percent of the people agreeing on anything?”

Kathleen Richards, a spokeswoman for the city of Las Vegas, which has added about 1,200 homes to the pilot program, is guarded in voicing her approval.

“It’s still truly a pilot. … We’re getting some mixed reviews even though we are seeing great numbers,” Richards says.

Clark County resident Tara Pike would like her neighborhood to adopt the program. Right now, Pike takes her recycling to work with her. She oversees the Rebel Recycling program for UNLV, a position she has held since the late ’90s and one she created after writing a thesis on the subject while finishing her environmental studies degree at UNLV.

She says a perspective shift is in order.

“Twice-a-week garbage pick-up is sending the message that garbage is more important than recycling,” she says. “You’re not giving people the incentive to put the recycling into the recycling bin. They’re more likely to just try to fit it into the trash container.”

Pike also tries to give an ear to the opposition as well.

“Garbage in Las Vegas has never been looked at very positively because you’ve really only had one choice. But people don’t realize how cheap their garbage bill is,” she says.

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