Best Practices

Mayor Theresa M. Estness (May, 2003)

Wauwatosa Blue Bag Co-Collection

In Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (pop. 46,930) a "blue bag combined-collection" system works despite the demise of some earlier "Blue Bag" programs. In October, 1994 all 17,364 one- through four-family households began using the one-pass single compartment system. Results demonstrate it is one of the most convenient, cost-effective and efficient ways to collect recyclables. It has achieved a 8-year diversion rate of 21%, and an average net cost of $1.59/household/month (bags included). Wauwatosa's Blue Bag Co-Collection Program may even be the best of its kind in the U.S., as it received the 1995 SWANA Silver Award for Recycling Excellence.

This not only demonstrates the importance of recycling to Wauwatosa citizens, but also reinforces the effectiveness of Wisconsin and local laws mandating recycling since 1995. State guidelines strongly favor more expensive separated collection programs. This community's unique Blue Bag Program surpasses the State's stringent requirements, and even exceeds many separate collection programs, in a manner that's user-friendly and cost-effective.

The daunting task of program development was originated by a Citizen's Recycling Advisory Committee over a decade ago, compared to other options by a consultant, analyzed by staff, and approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). It was piloted in 20% of the City in 1993, and fully rolled out in October, 1994. To be more than "just another" blue bag program many improvements had to be made over others: heavy duty bags, low compaction, more transfer trips, optimized sorting/processing, and extensive education.

Here's how it works. City residents purchase City-approved blue bags at over a dozen retailers throughout the city. In one blue bag residents put mixed paper (ONP, OMG, OCC, & RMP). Commingled items (metal cans, HDPE, PETE, & glass bottles) go in a second blue bag. The bags are placed inside 95 gal. carts with garbage for regular weekly pickup. City crews use semi-automation to collect the blue bags along with trash at the curb and alley in one-compartment packer trucks. They deliver everything to the City transfer station where the blue bags are separated from the waste over a sorting line by the City's contractor, Waste Management. Paper is debagged and subsequently transported to an end market, and blue bags of containers are sent to a MRF and processed for marketing. Blue bags are recycled too.

Results are very satisfactory to the City and WDNR, with over 178#/person/year recycled just by the Blue Bag Program, compared to a minimum 108# under the State mandate. Wauwatosa's overall diversion rate rises to a 8-year average of 43% when the recycling drop-off and three yard waste materials (leaves, brush, & branches under 6") are added in. Appliances, computers, scrap metal, textiles, tires, and waste oil are collected from city residents along with blue bagged items at the City Drop-off Center. Residential (one to four family) yard waste is collected biweekly at the curb for six months, at the drop-off year round, and during an annual Fall leaf collection. Grass clippings are not collected at the curb or drop-off. The City also does "special collections" of bulky materials on a fee basis to city residents. These include appliances, brush/branches, and excess garbage. There is a 2-week "Spring Clean-up" in early May each year where extra garbage is collected free. Finally a household hazardous waste (HHW) collection day is provided each year by contract, along with two outlying permanent HHW sites that city residents can use.

The 2003 combined cost of all garbage and recycling programs is about $2.5 million per year, with roughly $1.1 million of "DNR grant eligible" expenses. About 40% of the "eligible" expenses are allocated for the curbside Blue Bag Program, and 60% for the yard waste programs. Some of the curbside "eligible" expenses can be attributed to real additional City costs over and above collecting garbage; such as one extra truck trip per route per day, education and administration. Some garbage collection costs are legitimately claimed as "eligible" based on the curbside recycling diversion rate. Yet retail blue bag costs by residents (about $240,000 per year) are not claimed as "eligible" expenses.

The Drop-off Center, HHW, "Specials," and garbage collection/disposal costs are not claimed as "eligible" and constitute the remaining $1.4 million. Each of those respectively comprise about 12%, 1.5%, 1.5%, and 83% of that "ineligible" cost. In sum, if the cost of bags is included, the total costs are about $2.8 million--$2.55 million City costs and $250,000 resident bag costs-or about 18% for the Blue Bag program, 27% for all yard waste programs, 6% for Drop-off Center, 1% HHW, 1% "specials," and 47% for garbage. In round figures that totals $13.44/household/month: $2.42 ($1.27 covered by the City) for curbside recycling, $3.63 for yard waste and leaves, $0.81 for drop-off recycling, $0.13 for HHW, $0.13 for "specials," and $6.32 for garbage. A $225,000 annual DNR grant revenue reduces the recycling and yard waste costs to: $1.99 ($0.84 City) for Blue Bag recycling, and $2.98 for yard waste/leaves (with others the same, for a net real cost to the City of $11.21/household/month).

The bottom line is that the Blue Bag Program costs about the same as landfilling, yet yields the added benefits of saving energy and other valuable resources. The eight year average shows it is just $0.43/ton more than landfilling, at $33.06/ton to recycle versus $32.63/ton for landfilling trash. And citizens like it. A survey conducted as part of the pilot program revealed that 82 percent gave it a satisfaction rating of six or better on a 10-point scale. Nearly half of the respondents gave it a perfect score of 10. That's Wauwatosa's "best practice."

Contact: Office of the Mayor, (414) 479-8915

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