Ecology Center/Recycle Ann Arbor & The Landfilling of Our Recycling

Ecology Center/Recycle Ann Arbor & The Landfilling of Our Recycling

by Patricia Lesko

I recently received a long email with the Subject line: City of Ann Arbor Action – MONDAY NIGHT!! from someone named Doug Selby. In his email, Mr. Selby urges me to attend the next City Council meeting to pressure Council members to award the contract to run our Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) to RAA as opposed to Waste Management (the lowest bidder). RAA is a subsidiary of and controlled by The Ecology Center.

I don’t know Doug Selby, but I am on the Ecology Center’s email newsletter list. After a bit of poking around, I found that Doug Selby (http://www.ecocenter.org/about-us) serves on the board of the Ecology Center. His email (sent to those on the Ecology Center’s/RAA’s email list?) is not identified as an Ecology Center mass mailing. The email did not identify Selby as a Board member of the Ecology Center. To most people, the message would look simply like an email from a concerned neighbor.

I find that troubling. I found the contents of Mr. Selby’s mass email troubling, as well.

River District neighbor Bobby Frank recently shared on NextDoor that after multiple phone calls to RAA, staff there had finally answered Bobby’s question: Were the hundreds and hundreds of tons of glass we’re all recycling (and paying RAA to haul) going into the landfill instead? The answer he finally got was this: YES. However, RAA officials had initially and repeatedly denied to Bobby our glass was being landfilled.

I contacted Council members Frenzel and Smith (both of whom sit on the Environmental Commission) to ask if, indeed, our glass “recycling” is being landfilled, for how long, and when they became aware of the practice and how many tons, total, have been landfilled. Frenzel (my Ward 1 Council member), chose not to reply or acknowledge my questions. Chip Smith replied. He said he’d been made aware in July 2016 and been “upset.” He also shared that city staff told him this has been going on for “a few years.” Smith deserves credit for his frank answers.

Council members had been made aware that our recycling is being landfilled, but residents were not informed. Ecology Center/RAA was paid millions and millions of dollars to haul our "recycled" glass to the MRF, and the landfill.
Council members had been made aware that our recycling is being landfilled, but residents were not informed. Ecology Center/RAA was paid millions and millions of dollars to haul our “recycled” glass to the MRF, and the landfill.

Council members had been made aware that our recycling is being landfilled, but residents were not informed. Ecology Center/RAA was paid millions and millions of dollars to haul our “recycled” glass to the MRF, and the landfill.

Mr. Selby writes in his email:

SELBY: “For the last 8 months, the city has squandered over $1 Million to have Waste Management, Inc. landfill the city’s recyclables. What’s more, the city’s current contract with WM costs the city $125,000 more PER MONTH than the previous contract. This is currently costing city residents a LOT of extra money for terrible results. If you want to be more appalled, keep reading.”

My question: Since landfilling of our recyclables has been going on for a “few years,” according to Ward 5 Council member Chip Smith, why are we only hearing about it now, when RAA wants Council to award them the contract to run the MRF?

SELBY: “The City Environmental Commission voted unanimously to award the contract to RAA/Rumpke, but City staff is recommending Waste Management. The city staff are also playing games to make it look like WM’s proposal is the most cost-effective to the City Council when it is not.”

My question: Mr. Selby makes a very serious, unsubstantiated allegation concerning unprofessionalism and perhaps dishonesty on the part of our city staff, including our new City Administrator. Why didn’t his email include proof of the alleged “games” and/or misdeeds (i.e., links to the original bids, which are public records, emails from city staff or financial records)?

SELBY: “Fix the MRF, hire RAA to operate it. It’s the best for our taxes, the best for the environment and the best for our community. Please help us ensure that Waste Management does not come into our community, extract our tax money and landfill a large percentage of our recyclables.”

My question: An unknown (but certainly large) percentage of our recycling (all of the glass collected) has been landfilled with the tacit assistance of RAA for a few years. City staff were quoted in this recent article (http://www.waste360.com/contracts/ann-ar…) as saying, “Ann Arbor is weighing is whether to invest in glass moving forward.” How will giving this contract to RAA change the fact that our glass recyclables can’t be sold and are, therefore, being landfilled?

Here’s some information gathered from public records about our solid waste and recycling programs. I’m certainly interested in what others think and am glad to provide links to public records for those who want to do there own poking around.

1. Council voted in December 2003 to change the RAA contract to a performance based contract. The stated cost was $766,071. By FY10 that cost had grown to over $1.6 million. By FY 2010, though the amount paid to RAA had more than doubled, the amount of materials being collected by RAA had stagnated. The city was paying more and more to collect virtually the same amount of recyclables. Our city residential collection crews pick up about 28,000 garbage carts. RAA picks up about 30,000 recycling carts.

2. It costs taxpayers significantly more to outsource recycling collections. The payment to RAA under the auspices of the most recent no bid contract to pick up the recycling carts is *double* the cost of wages and benefits paid to city employees to pick up the trash carts. From FY06 through FY10 it cost about $4 million more to pick up the recyclables. Recycle Ann Arbor provides the labor, and of course, charges for its own administrative costs. Taxpayers foot the bill for the Recycle Ann Arbor trucks, fuel, and maintenance under the auspices of the one-sided contract negotiated by a now-retired city staffer and approved by City Council in 2010.

3. The City Administrator/city staff recently awarded the contract to run our Materials Recycling Facility to Waste Management, the lowest bidder. This is a marked departure from how our recycling program contracts have been awarded in past (under the now retired senior city staff member). Under previous city management, multiple, multi-million dollar, no bid contracts have been awarded to RAA, with the support of the Environmental Commission (whose members used to include Ecology Center/RAA Board member David Stead). After the conversion to single-stream, Stead’s company was awarded city contracts.

Waste Management is facing lawsuits from city customers who accuse WM of dumping recycling directly into landfills. Single-stream recycling has been criticized as environmentally regressive and as benefitting the hauler rather than the environment. The problem is not who runs the MRF, but rather our entire recycling program and its bloated costs.

If awarding a single contract to the lowest bidder seems City Government 101, as regards our recycling program it is an encouraging step by our new City Administrator away from entrenched cronyism. Ecology Center director Mike Garfield has repeatedly endorsed local Council candidates who have voted in favor of lop-sided, no bid contracts for RAA. Mr. Selby’s email and this effort to bamboozle city residents into pressuring City Council into reversing the award of a recycling contract to the lowest bidder, should, public records suggest, be viewed with suspicion.

4 Responses to "Ecology Center/Recycle Ann Arbor & The Landfilling of Our Recycling"

  1. Pingback: A2Indy: Locally Sourced News– Ecology Center/Recycle Ann Arbor & The Landfilling of Our http://www.a2indy.com/?p=20529  #annarborcitycouncil #annarbornews – GoEcoGreen.org

  2. Jeff Hayner   March 3, 2017 at 9:17 am

    It should be noted that the University no longer accepts glass for recycling because there is no market for it. University students and employees have been advised to trash it.

    https://record.umich.edu/articles/glass-

    Using ground glass for landfill cover is ok w/me, something has to be used, it’s better to use glass that we “own” via the waste stream than to purchase top soil or other products to use for mandated daily cover.

    As for the bid process, it is my understanding that the RFP was answered by three companies, and the responses were graded on an objective scale. The RAA response/proposal scored the lowest by far of the three. I believe it was about 30 points lower on a scale of 1-100. So if City Council follows the 11-0 recommendation of Environmental Commission, and not city staff, to hire RAA instead of WM, they owe the residents/taxpayers an explanation as to what benefits we are getting that makes the lowest ranking proposal the clear winner. I would prefer to have a concrete explanation, not a feel-good one.

    In the past RAA has been the beneficiary of no-bid contracts, automatic pay increases at 3-4x the rate of inflation, and other perks (the city pays for the trucks and fuel for example) on top of the contracted price. They pushed for single stream which lowered the value of the recycled commodities, costing the city money. This system also has given us all the giant carts which take up space on our property. It appears that using the local solution has cost the city much more than a competitive bid would have, for many years. There are hundreds of Michigan communities that don’t have any recycling at all. This is low-hanging fruit, if recycling is the right thing to do we should be doing our own eco-outreach and community recycling-education – to other communities – for a net gain statewide, with the money we save by awarding the contract wisely.

    Also should point out that the city has yet to fill the open solid waste position that was posted last May. Having that staff member may well have saved us more in the long run, as the costs associated with ReCommunity MRF operations/mis-operations have not been the best, ecologically or financially. The sign on the building says “a public private partnership” which usually means public takes the risk, the private gets the profits. So the public needs to be at the table, and we are not. We have heard a lot lately from some about how great city staff is, but I’m not so sure that is true in this case. And, there are rumblings that there is animosity between RAA and the city which led the city to score the RRA proposal poorly. Animosity based on what I don’t know. I don’t have insider’s access.

    The RAA/Ecology Center’s obvious political bias towards certain city politicos (and possible financial benefits from contracts decided by same) has muddied the waters. It is not possible to tell what’s really going on, and the Environmental Commissions 11-0 recommendation of RRA makes it even more sketchy. When has EC last spoken up on any matter of importance to the city? As a body they have been mostly silent on the Gelman Plume, on the Deer Cull, on the effects of development on the watershed, the loss of agricultural lands, protecting the Allen Creek Greenway from development, etc. The one good thing to come from EC this year has been the pilot for commercial collection of organics. Diversion of organics from the waste stream for conversion to compost is a winner, and more important than the concerns about glass. When energy prices climb, commodity glass will again have value, and we should be in a position to act on that. As long as we don’t sell our heavily invested MRF there is potential to make a profit, or at least cover costs. Whoever can do that would get my vote for the contract.

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  3. Doug Selby   March 2, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    Hi Pat,

    Just a couple reactions to your post. The email you are referring to was sent to a small group of my friends who are interested in politics and green issues. You are not on my email list, so I am quite sure this wasn’t sent to you by me. Perhaps someone forwarded it to you? Furthermore, NO ONE at the Eco Center or RAA asked me to send an email. My statements come from me alone, and I stand behind them.

    While it is true that I am a board member of the Eco Center, I am also a citizen of Ann Arbor that is deeply concerned with issues such as clean energy and recycling. The Eco Center is an esteemed organization that has been fighting these battles for as long as I’ve been alive, and I am proud to donate my time and energy to this organization.

    This email in question was me informing my friends of a complicated issue and asking them for their awareness and support. There was no mass email, no collusion or nefariousness afoot, and I am indeed just a concerned citizen who was emailing my friends. But thank you for publicizing this because it is a very important issue. And if you care about recycling in Ann Arbor, read on.

    I know enough about this issue to make an informed judgement, and I am deeply concerned about the direction the city is taking in regard to our recycling program. Here are some facts:

    • The only way you can call Waste Management’s proposal less costly is if you say that baling waste and shipping it to Akron, OH is the only way to recycle. But it’s not, and in fact the practice results in destroying about 1/3rd of the materials and causes much more to be landfilled.

    • If you sort the waste first and keep it loose, it’s the best and highest value for recyclables. RAA/Rumpke’s proposal to do it CORRECTLY is much lower than WM’s proposal to do it incorrectly. So in other words, we as taxpayers will pay less to recycle more with RAA/Rumpke’s proposal.

    • By making WM’s bid seem less by saying there’s only one way to do it that counts (WM’s method), it IS playing games to make WM’s proposal seem more cost-effective. But it’s not. The better method will cost taxpayers less.

    • Waste Management will take money out of our community never to return.

    • I am not making any allegations about anyone at the city. If anything, they have suffered a huge brain drain as people have retired and positions have not been re-filled. That is why we are in the position we are in now! But that does not mean we should allow things to happen without a full public debate, particularly when it involves taxpayer money.

    • I’m not sure, but I think you may be confusing ReCommunity, the company that was running the MRF, with Recycle Ann Arbor. There is no connection.

    • The numbers I cited in my email that was posted on NextDoor are correct. If anyone wants to read it, I’ll be happy to send them the entirety if they email me at [email protected]. I am not shy about my opinions.

    And here are my opinions:

    • Waste Management is no friend of recycling, full stop. They are a landfill operator and regardless of their greenwashing PR statements, they damage effective recycling operations in municipalities where they take control of the programs. Their own corporate documents cite recycling as a threat to their bottom line.

    • Recycle Ann Arbor (RAA) does a fantastic job in a tough business. They are a non-profit that operates completely above-board and the work they do is based on a great set of foundational values. I am not a member of RAA, but I fully support their work in our community.

    • The City Council should approve the recycling contract with RAA. PLEASE call your council member and ask them to support their proposal.

    Thank you for reading,

    Doug

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  4. Alex Wood   March 2, 2017 at 10:18 am

    This has been going on for more than just a few years. I took an earth science/local geology class in college (15ish years ago) that took a field trip to the Recycle Ann Arbor center on Platt rd. On the tour, the recycle center employee explained that while they “officially” accept a large range of items for recycling, they only actually recycle the things they can make $ off of, everything else goes to landfill.

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