Fresh Ideas: Talking trash in the capital city

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Carson City has embarked on an unprecedented campaign of trash talking. Yes, city government is boldly going forth to envision the future — of garbage collection and recycling — with your help.

The most important word is “future.” Unlike most contracts, agreements to collect garbage are traditionally long. Carson’s current contract began 19 years ago with Capital Sanitation. Remember them? They were bought out by national trash titan Waste Management which is fulfilling the contract. A five-year extension on a 15-year contract takes us to today. The city is preparing to request proposals for solid waste services for a new multi-year decade-straddling contract.

Why are the contracts long? Because, according to Rick Cooley, P.E., the city’s construction manager, the company must invest in equipment (think high-tech trucks and massive numbers of trash cans). That’s only affordable if amortized over a number of years.

The city, with the help of a municipal solid waste advisor, has put together a survey to find out what residents want, now and in the future, and whether they will pay for enhanced services. Should pickup be mandatory? Currently trash is picked up weekly from Carson customers who use their own can or use Waste Management’s for a fee. In addition, the hauler currently offers biweekly curbside recycling of glass, aluminum and tin cans, some plastic, and some paper, but not cardboard.

The survey introduces the concept of “single stream” recycling. According to the Container Recycling Institute, “Single-stream recycling is a system in which all recyclables, including newspaper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, junk mail, etc., are placed in a single bin or cart for recycling ...” At a materials recovery facility, the items are sorted for sale to reuse in making new products.

Is single stream the answer for materials to avoid the landfill? Not necessarily. By combining metal, glass, paper and cardboard together, it may become a stew of shattered glass and soggy paper — an unusable mess. Single stream sounds simpler, but according to a 2015 NPR report, one quarter of single stream ends up in the landfill, including 40 percent of glass. It might not be Carson City’s landfill, but it’s still heading for a dump.

There’s another system called dual stream, which is similar to Carson City’s hybrid current system. Food and beverage containers are in a bin separate from paper. Sometimes the glass is separate, as we do here. Using hybrid dual stream, Carson’s recycling rate was 27 percent in 2016.

The survey raised more questions for me, and a concern our present waste hauler hasn’t done a good job of communicating with customers. Did you know you can arrange for a curbside pickup of a couch or washing machine? What kinds of plastic are OK to recycle? I realize I don’t know as much as I should about our present service because the current contract holder doesn’t effectively communicate with customers.

Looking to the future, collection service must be affordable for all including seniors and low income residents. The successful bidder should be responsive, accessible and able to communicate effectively with the public. The new company should be adaptable to community needs. For example, the contract must consider handling of bear-proof trash and recycling containers for this community nestled against the Sierra.

Public meetings to talk trash with the city are Feb. 20, 6-8 p.m., and March 7 from 2-4 and 6-8 p.m. in the Sierra Room at the Carson City Community Center. The survey is available at the meetings or online at

In the future, residents and newcomers to Carson City will expect an affordable and effective recycling program that works to reuse materials. It will be a quality-of-life indicator and is an opportunity to encourage the responsible use of finite resources for years to come.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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