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City of Flagstaff pilots smaller trash bins and compost drop-offs as it looks at future of landfill

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Compacting Trash

A trash compactor sits on top of a mound of garbage at the Cinder Lake Landfill in this 2018 file photo.

As the City of Flagstaff looks to extend the life of the Cinder Lake Landfill, members of city staff are piloting several new projects that could help divert waste to other destinations.

This year, staff with the solid waste and sustainability divisions began testing efforts that could lead to a city composting program and give residents the option to lower their trash fees.

City Sustainability Specialist Kaeli Wells told the Flagstaff City Council this week that since August, staff have been piloting a program dubbed “Trash less, save more” in the Ponderosa Trails neighborhood.

The pilot program implements volumetric pricing, meaning that residents essentially have the ability to use smaller trash bins based on how much trash they produce each week and are then charged accordingly, Wells said.

At the moment, the only option for most Flagstaff residents is to use standard 96-gallon trash bins. And no matter how much trash ends up in the can by the end of the week, residents still pay the same flat fee for the service.

The pilot program changes that, introducing two smaller options in the form of a 64-gallon trash can and a 48-gallon trash can. Each of the other options would have a lower garbage fee associated with it.

“Volumetric pricing says, ‘Hey, if you're trashing less, then you should be spending less on your trash bill.’ And before now we didn’t have an option for folks who were producing less waste.” Wells said. “So it works just like utilities: you pay for as much as you need.”

As the system is set up now, a resident using a 64-gallon bin saves about $2.21 a month while a resident using a 48-gallon bin saves about $4.19.

So far, Wells said, about 200 households within the Ponderosa Trails neighborhood have signed on and have started using smaller bins. Those residents currently in the program will receive a rebate with their savings at the end of the pilot, set to conclude soon.

The program may encourage residents to produce less trash, potentially by recycling more items.

And Wells said they are pairing the program with an effort to better educate members of the public on good recycling practices and exactly what can, and cannot, be recycled.

But there are some potential pitfalls.

For example, Wells said, what isn't intended to happen is for residents to get a smaller bin simply for the savings but then start putting more non-recyclables into the recycling bin instead. That would further contaminate the city’s recycling, which already has a fairly high contamination rate, and wouldn’t end up diverting any material from the landfill.

As such, Wells said, they have been conducting recycling audits and doing recycling bin checks and leaving notes if they find materials that should not be in the bins.

There is a similar concern regarding bulky trash pickup. If there is a sudden increase in the bulky trash pickup that residents are leaving, and if the nature of that trash changes from primarily yard waste to more everyday trash, the program may not be functioning as well as they had hoped.

But Wells said they have also been testing a new composting initiative as a way to divert food scraps from the landfill, something that has long been discussed in Flagstaff.

The city previously worked with Northern Arizona University on a trial program that sought to divert grass clippings and other green waste from city parks to compost bins on campus.

The most recent program, however, is taking an alternate strategy, providing residents the opportunity to drop off residential food waste at a designated point.

Wells said this summer, the city had drop-off locations each week at the Flagstaff Community Market and the Market of Dreams.

With the farmer’s market season over, Wells said, they have created other designated drop-off stations that are available throughout the week, one at the Hal Jensen Recreation Center and another at the Flagstaff CSA. Two local companies, Compost Crowd and Corbin Compost, are working with the city on the program, with the end product making its way to local farms.

Wells added that so far they believe the compost drop-off effort has been pretty successful, with more than 70 participants joining in the last three weeks.

“Especially during Halloween, we had a lot of pumpkins,” Wells said.

Piling up, covering up

The two programs come as part of the city’s larger rethink waste plan that seeks to both extend the life of the landfill by diverting waste to other destinations and lowering the amount of waste that makes it into the landfill overall.

The plan is also an effort to reduce the carbon emissions created by the landfill. The landfill makes up 11% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the city’s climate plan.

When waste breaks down in the landfill, it often creates greenhouse gasses like methane, which has 28 times the impact of carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change.

In addition to more public facing programs, Solid Waste Collections manager Daniel Logan told the city council that the organization is also changing operations on the back end to extend the landfill’s life.

Logan said earlier this year they began using a tarp to cover the landfill each night, giving them an estimated five years of further operations.

The landfill is legally required to be covered every night when it is closed so that animals and the wind don’t disperse waste outside the area. That has often meant covering the landfill with a layer of dirt, or more recently, paper waste or green waste mixed with dirt.

Logan said they have begun using a large tarp that is pulled over the landfill each night, before being removed the next morning instead. In that way, they don’t lose any airspace to a cover of dirt.

“In order to save that material that we were putting down and gain that airspace that we were packing all that material into, we simply lay down a tarp. […] In the morning they come and roll it up and we start again,” Logan said. “Just a simple, little project like that added five years to the landfill easily.”

With those changes, Logan said, they believe the landfill will be able to remain in operation until at least 2072.

Even Christmas trees aren't immune to the pandemic-induced shortages and inflation plaguing the economy. Extreme weather and supply chain disruptions have reduced supplies of both real and artificial trees this season. American shoppers should expect to have fewer choices and pay up to 30 percent more for both types this Christmas, industry officials say.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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