Why doesn’t the city of Walla Walla recycle glass? In short, an effective program is expensive, and likely prohibitively so. But how expensive, exactly?
That’s the question city officials hope to answer with a nearly $52,000 study. Earlier this month, Walla Walla City Council voted 4-3 to enter into a contract with consulting firm WIH Resource Group, based in Phoenix, Arizona, to analyze options available to the city and their cost to city taxpayers.
The study came in response to frequent questions from residents asking city officials why they don’t have a glass recycling program, according to city officials.
In a 2021 survey, only 44% of Walla Walla city residents believed there were adequate recycling services, and the lack of glass recycling in particular has repeatedly been brought up by residents in similar surveys in recent years.
“The primary objective with the study, at least the analysis of the glass alternatives, is what is the most viable alternative for the city of Walla Walla and our residents?” Public Works Director Ki Bealey told council members.
“What’s the collection mechanism, what’s the transport mechanism, where are the markets and what is the cost of this system to provide those services?”
However, the expectation for the study is not necessarily that the city will find an affordable way to recycle its residents’ glass, Bealey said during the council meeting, because there’s a chance no option exists that would be supported by taxpayers.
“The intent here has been to do the homework to find out what it might cost, so that again we can go back to the citizens and say, if you do want glass recycling, are you willing to pay X,” Bealey told council members.
Some council members questioned whether the study was worth the cost.
“This isn’t just spending $50,000 to tell citizens that glass recycling would be too expensive?” council member Rick Eskil asked Bealey during the April 13 meeting when the vote was taken.
“It could be, it certainly could be,” Bealey replied.
A number of complicating factors apply to recycling glass, Bealey said. It’s the heaviest recyclable commodity, meaning it has significantly higher transportation costs, a concern in any economy but particularly so with soaring gas prices, he said.
Glass should also be sorted by type because clear glass is more valuable than brown glass, for instance, another step not required in the city’s existing recycling program, which does not sort its recyclable commodities.
Mayor Tom Scribner, in response to council concerns, asked Bealey whether the study was simply to “CYA,” a euphemism for protecting yourself from criticism.
“I sure would like to have the answers because we get that question very often,” Bealey said. “But … I would not have brought this to you had that not shown up in the resident satisfaction survey. It’s as simple as that.”
The motion passed 4-3, with council members Eskil, Brian Casey and Susan Nakonieczny voting against.
The city of Walla Walla once separately collected its residents’ glass, though the program was ended in 2012 due to expense and the inadequacy of the recycling program as it existed.
The residential recycling program was originally implemented in the mid-1980s as a network of neighborhood drop-off depots with a “multi-stream system,” in which different types of recyclables were picked up and transported separately.
In 1996, the city chose to move to a single-stream curbside recycling program for most residents, in which all recyclables were deposited in the same bin.
The glass was transported to bottle manufacturer Owens-Illinois in the Portland area for recycling.
In 2007, it was determined that glass commodity prices had fallen so far that the material needed to be separated to preserve the value of other recyclables, which can drop dramatically when mixed with something of low value.
The city returned to centralized depots where residents could drop off their glass, although it appears that non-residents, including commercial wineries, may have been illegally using the depots, Bealey told the U-B, increasing cost burdens for the program.
But in 2008, due to increasingly low commodity values for the recycled glass, transporting the heavy material across the state to the Owens-Illinois facility was deemed too costly. Instead, the material was transported to the city’s Sudbury Landfill, where it would be crushed en masse by a bulldozer and used in materials for road construction.
This created numerous problems, Bealey said. First, the material could be hazardous if roadways had to be dug up, and it also could make the road reflective if used in the asphalt.
“It’s a challenging item to work with,” Bealey said.
Second, the environmental benefit was nominal, perhaps nonexistent, Bealey said. Glass is an inert material, so it doesn’t create air pollution when it sits in a landfill. Meanwhile, transporting the material from depots to the landfill, let alone across the state to a recycling facility, does have a carbon footprint.
Finally, Bealey said, crushing glass with a bulldozer for nominal uses in construction is not what most people want when they think of “recycling.”
“Bottom line, it was not truly recycled, and not a great program in the first place,” Bealey said.
Between 2008 and 2011, glass collection continued to grow in Walla Walla, averaging approximately 500,000 pounds per year. On July 27, 2012, the city elected to end the glass recycling program.
“Fast forward 10 years, and we haven’t found an alternative,” Bealey said.
While it’s not clear if the study approved earlier this month will find a viable solution, it will at least help clarify for city officials what programs are available.
“Ultimately, the fundamental goal is: What would the system look like? And what would it cost?” Bealey said.