Some 200,000 Las Vegas valley residents who rely on single-stream recycling, that is, they use a single can to dispose of all their recyclables, which are picked up once a week.
The program was implemented by Republic Services with promises of dramatic increases in the overall recycling effort, but it looks like the promises have fallen short.
On Tuesday, Clark County Commissioners will consider whether to audit the single-stream program to find out how well it’s working.
The I-Team dove into the same murky waters a year ago and tried to see if it could document how well the single-stream residential recycling program was working and whether it has it lived up to the promises that were made in exchange for changes to the weekly garbage service.
If the county decides to move ahead with a performance audit, those unknown auditors will have their work cut out for them.
“It’s like an amoeba. The numbers keep jumping around,” said Steve Kalish.
He has been involved with the garbage business since he worked on a truck as a teenager. When promoted to general manager years later, he negotiated a long-term deal to provide some of the best garbage service in the country — twice a week trash pickup and twice a month recycling pickup.
Things started changing in 2008 when pilot programs were launched to do single-stream recycling — once a week trash, once a week recycling in a single container. The amount of recycled material was predicted to soar.
“We have seen almost a 10 pound per home, per week increase,” said Republic Services General Manager Len Christopher during an interview with the I-Team in November 2014.
Republic Services executive Bob Coyle told the Clark County Commission that the single-stream program led to a 400 percent increase in recycled materials everywhere it had been used. Some Republic Services officials even said 500 percent.
Fourteen hundred percent the mayor of Henderson asserted when it was implemented there. Two years after single stream was approved for Clark County and it was even longer since it was okayed for Henderson and North Las Vegas, some 200,000 homes in all.
So how is the program doing?
“The numbers don’t say they are recycling more. They’ve grown, don’t get me wrong, but the presentations were getting of 400, 500 percent growth, I don’t think we’ve grown by more than 20 percent and if you take glass out, we haven’t grown at all,” Kalish said.
He has kept a low profile in the 10 years since he left Republic Services. He operates the trash system for Boulder City and recently launched Kalish Environmental to act as a recycling consultant to corporations.
His questions about local recycling peaked in 2010 when he served on a county committee created to evaluate the program. That committee never formally dissolved. It just stopped meeting.
“When we were meeting, they said the numbers were doubled, tripled, they’re great. They were basically telling us that story. Then in 2013 it comes out that somebody counted double,” Kalish said.
That somebody was the Southern Nevada Health District to whom local recyclers report their production. The numbers helped make the case for single stream, then turned out to be falsely inflated. In the years since single stream was implemented, the recycling rate for Clark County has hovered well below the national average and way below those of other western cities.
The latest numbers collected by the state of Nevada show that the overall recycling rate in Clark County is dropping from 27 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2013 to just above 20 percent in 2014.
It’s one reason Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani wants to talk about a formal audit of the program.
“I am a complete supporter of single stream recycling but you don’t take people’s services away under a guise of adding or making them feel like they are doing something for the environment and that is not the reality of what is happening,” she said.
“”The only two people in that committee in 2010 that were naysayers were Commissioner Giunchigliani and Steve Kalish. Everybody else got so sick and tired of those meetings and the way they were trying to drive those meetings against Republic Services that they refused to show up anymore,” Coyle said.
These days Coyle is a Republic consultant but is still the point man in defending the single-stream program.
He notes that customer satisfaction is above 80 percent, and the amount of recycled material his company sells has increased from 50,000 tons per year to over 90,000 tons.
Now that its new recycling plant — the largest and most advanced in the country — is open, Republic should be able to expand the service county wide and live up to the promises it made. That said, sorting out the numbers proved more difficult than sorting out the trash. With 200,000 homes each generating 10 or more pounds per week.
George Knapp: “Where’s the rest of it go?”
Coyle: “For the last two years we’ve been flat, we haven’t increased the amount of single stream recycling because we had to build the plant.”
George Knapp: “No, you just told me you’re up, 50,000 tons to 90,000 tons.
Coyle: “That’s in total.”
George Knapp: “If you’re not selling it, where does it go?”
Coyle: “No we’re selling it. That’s exactly what we’re selling.”
It’s tough to get straight answers because there are so many different numbers floating around. Some figures mix residential with commercial waste. The different types are broken down into individual categories, and their sales of each change just as any commodity does.
Different agencies — state, county, health district — look at different criteria. And then there are perhaps 100 other recyclers in the county other than Republic. So it’s not just comparing apples to oranges, it”s also with bananas and grapefruit thrown in the mix.