Phoenix's curbside recycling project is a smash hit--with the public, that is. It may well be the most popular conservation program yet launched by Phoenix City Hall, judging by the response from the 10,000 homes selected to participate.
The experimental program seemed to have a little bit of everything going for it. It was ecologically sound and supposedly self-supporting, it helped residents clean up their neighborhoods, it even employed homeless people.
But talk to the professional recyclers on the receiving end of the garbage and it's a different story. They claim the three-year pilot program, which is expected to come before Phoenix City Council next month for approval to expand citywide, has been a nightmare. The profits they say were promised them by City Hall have gone up in smoke along a trail littered with lawsuits and charges of inept management.
The recyclers claim city officials have managed the program so badly that thousands of tons of recyclable refuse, faithfully separated by participating homeowners, end up in already bulging landfills.
In the nearly three years the pilot program has been under way, the City of Phoenix has run the program through a succession of private companies, switching from one site to another as the program struggled to become profitable. The two most recent contractors, Why Waste America? and Tri-R Incorporated, say they lost millions as a result of their involvement with the city.
UNDER THE PROGRAM, people in the 10,000 selected homes set out refuse such as aluminum and paper for separate pickup by city sanitation workers. The mixed recyclables were trucked to a commercial recycling center under contract to the city. The materials were dumped on a conveyor belt and sorted by workers under the supervision of city officials. The resulting products were marketed by the recycler, with a portion of the profits returning to the city to underwrite program costs.
"The response by homeowners has been great," says Jack Friedline, the city's deputy public-works director. Not only have participants been cooperative, the city has been peppered with calls from residents eager for curbside recycling pickup in their neighborhoods. For months, callers have been told the program would be MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.10 I9.14 expanded gradually as the city gained experience.
Adding to the program's appeal was an early decision to employ homeless people, under a contract with St. Vincent de Paul, to sort the materials. (The city later switched to inmate labor supplied under the Arizona Correctional Industries program, paying 50 cents an hour instead of the $3.85-an-hour minimum wage.)
Once the program was running smoothly, the city intended to bid out long-term contracts to establish sorting stations in at least four permanent locations.
Last month, however, the garbage hit the fan.
The city abruptly canceled its agreement with Why Waste and moved the sorting operation to a vacant warehouse near the airport. The variety of materials being sorted for recycling has been cut in half and is now confined only to those most readily marketed, such as newsprint and aluminum. The remainder of the recyclables, including mixed paper and most types of plastic, is going to the city dump. The number of homes being served remains at about 10,000, compared with earlier projections that the program by now would include at least 50,000 homes.
City public-works officials have taken over the job of marketing the sorted materials during the remainder of the program's pilot stage. None of the recyclers who worked with the city during the experimental phase is among the finalists to manage the permanent program.
City officials, however, contend that the recycling project is a success and say they are proceeding with plans to expand it. "The focus of the pilot program was to develop an [outline] for the permanent program that individual companies could bid on," Friedline explains. "If it comes to a question of whether we're expert sorters, that's not the focus of the program."
Professional recyclers dispute Friedline's explanation, saying he lured them with promises they could make a profit from helping the city market its goods.
A former official of Tri-R, a Denver-based recycler, claims the organization's effort to work with the city was nothing short of catastrophic. Tri-R lost everything it had invested in Phoenix when its then-new South Phoenix facility was destroyed by fire last summer. The fire, whose cause still is unknown, originated in a city-owned Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 To the contrary, Johnson says, he offered Phoenix officials advice on how to set up an efficient sorting line and even loaned St. Vincent de Paul $10,000 to buy a conveyor belt and other equipment needed for the operation. "Their first equipment was always breaking down, it couldn't handle even seven or eight thousand homes and stuff was piling up all over," Johnson says. "Friedline said he knew [the pilot program] would pay [a profit], but they never got it running right."
Friedline contends the city has decided not to expand the pilot program further because it now has the information necessary to arrange long-term contracts. "It was never our intent to become the recycler, but rather to go through qualified participants from the private sector," he says. He contends the city canceled its agreement with Why Waste because the company was unable to provide the automated sorting facility it had promised. "Tom kept saying he'd have the equipment next week, next week, and never came through," Friedline says.
Why Waste officials, however, say equipment was never the problem. "The equipment was under lease, ready to bring in, but we couldn't afford it and didn't need it for just 10,000 homes," Almhjell says. "Every time we asked Jack when he was going to increase the number of homes, he delayed. Now he says he never made us any commitments."
The real problem, says Almhjell, was labor. "Originally the city had hired homeless people as labor--and let me tell you, those guys are pros when it comes to sorting refuse--but then decided it would be cheaper to use inmate labor from the state penitentiary at Perryville," Almhjell says. "It was downhill from there. The inmates weren't motivated, we'd catch them napping beneath the conveyor belt, they'd pick out girlie magazines and stand there thumbing through them while the stuff went right past them on the belt.
"I once saw three footballs in play, right during a run. I myself caught one of the inmates being slipped a package of dope through the back fence, and they smuggled in hypodermics in a specially marked bag through some contact on the outside. Finally an official from the prison-work program came and did a seminar called `Games Inmates Play' to help us spot illicit Col 2, Depth P54.10 I9.14 to two out-of-state companies, New England CRINC and Browning-Ferris International. City public-works officials are expected to recommend council action on the bids in May. The subject of subsidies has not yet been discussed, Friedline asserts.
"We're still just looking at proposals for the operation," Friedline says. "We haven't talked money at all."
The pilot recycling program, which comes before Phoenix City Council next month for approval to expand citywide, has been a nightmare.
None of the recyclers who worked with the city during the experimental phase is among the finalists to manage the permanent program.
City officials contend that the recycling project is a success and say they are proceeding with plans to expand it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.