Equal Time: Why we have a yellow bag system

Since my name was mentioned in last week’s “Equal Time” column on trash collection and recycling, I feel compelled to mention a few things left out of the article.

First, the town’s waste management system was not set up to protect local business or give a windfall to plastic bag manufacturers. It was in response to federal and state laws passed in the 1980s to close groundwater-polluting open dumps.
In most states, including New York, those laws include requiring municipalities to have comprehensive plans ensuring the safe and legal disposal of waste generated within their borders. And those plans must include requiring source-separated recycling services to all residences. That’s whether or not they have curbside garbage pick-up service provided privately or by the town, and regardless of the destination of the waste.

The town must also demonstrate that its plan helps meet state waste reduction and recycling goals.

For Southold, after the Cutchogue landfill closed in October 1993 that meant shipping the waste out of state for disposal. Since the dump closure was not anticipated (a court decision gave only a few weeks’ notice), there were no tax revenues to cover the new costs, expected to be over $1 million a year. The town elected to go with a “pay-as-you-throw” (PAYT) fee system after getting public input at a series of hamlet meetings.

To address Mr. Young’s letter of last week, there actually were straw votes taken at these meetings. No one was happy having to pay anything, but the clear preference was for a user fee instead of taxes. And so the yellow bag program was born.  
Far from being a scheme to overcharge consumers and stifle competition as Mr. Fischer suggests, it tries to achieve just the opposite, which is greater individual control over one’s garbage costs and an incentive to save money by wasting less and recycling more. Any company is welcome to participate.

Mr. Fischer says he has “no problem” documenting the DEC-approved facilities he uses, yet when I called him he refused to name one. I am not aware of any facility on Long Island that effectively removes residential recyclables mixed with garbage for the price he claims. He then claimed to have “forgotten” his address when I offered to mail him a copy of the town code, and promptly hung up on me. That’s not the kind of treatment I would ever expect from a local carter.

My comment to him about tip fees on construction debris referred to the fact that the old facility was not set up to handle that waste stream. I told him of our new volume-based rate for carters, which did not interest him.

The yellow bag program has helped Southold reduce waste generation and increase recycling dramatically. That amounts to $400,000 in savings and revenue in 2010 and over $6 million since the program began in 1993.

As for what disposal rates “should be,” it’s true that the weak economy and low winter demand have resulted in outside trash collection facilities offering some low spot prices. But these are temporary and not offered for contract. I know because we’ve tried.

While there’s always room for improvement, it is important to remember that with its limited resources the town still provides an integrated, full-service waste management program to its residents and its fee structure reflects this.

This includes free hazardous waste disposal, year-round free disposal of leaves, free seasonal brush disposal, offering 500 pounds per person of free compost each year, safe and secure disposal of electronic waste and mercury bulbs, a robust recycling program, a free goods-exchange facility and other services.

While Mr. Fischer looks only for the cheapest, most immediate way to dispose of garbage, legal or otherwise, the town has a broader responsibility because we truly serve the entire community.

Mr. Bunchuck is Southold Town’s solid waste coordinator.