Norman businesses, apartment complexes struggle to recycle at low costs as city program initiatives
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Originally published by OU Daily Oct. 9, 2019. Co-written with Molly Kruse.
Two to three times a week, John Howell and his staff load pickup trucks with glass and cardboard and make the drive to one of Norman’s three recycling drop-off centers.
In 2018, Howell, co-owner of GL Dining group and owner of popular Norman eateries Blu, Blackbird, the Library and the Brewhouse, began a pilot program at Blu to address the restaurant’s creation of waste.
The restaurant attempted to source its menu from 100-percent organic, all-natural products and replaced its plastic-based straws and to-go carriers with food-based, biodegradable products.
“We were doing anything you can think (of) to reduce our waste,” Howell said. “We decided we’re going to eat as much of this cost upfront and not pass that around to the customers.”
The program was an experiment to see if Norman’s residents responded to the all-natural products, and if the business could survive by purchasing the more expensive, natural and waste-reducing products without increasing the cost of meals to the consumer.
The answer was no.
“People thanked us, but it didn’t drive business,” Howell said.
The business backed off on the all-natural sourcing of its food products, but it continues to invest in biodegradable straws and to-go options as a way to reduce its waste and, in turn, the amount and cost of trips to the drop-off center.
“We’re not a big company, we’re not a super-rich company … we’re not able to hire someone for (driving recyclables to a drop-off center) to be their job, and no one wants to pay $20 for a hamburger,” Howell said. “The reality is that restaurants are one of the smallest-margin retailers.”
While Norman has a residential recycling pick-up program with a resident participation rate of over 90 percent — one of the highest in the nation — the city has yet to create a comprehensive commercial and multi-family recycling program, said Amanda Nairn, chair of the city’s Environmental Control Advisory Board.
For residents living in a single-family home, recycling is as easy as throwing recyclable materials into their city-provided recycling bin and rolling it to the curb for city pick-up twice a month. But for businesses and residents living in one of Norman’s many apartment complexes, it takes more effort.
Norman’s single-family residences pay $14 a month for curbside weekly waste pick-up and an additional $3 per unit for curbside recycling. The rate for commercial pick-up is $19.64 per unit.
Oklahoma City and Edmond have residential trash and recycling programs similar to Norman’s, and they currently do not offer commercial recycling. Oklahoma City bundles its residential trash and recycling in one monthly fee of $23.45, while Edmond has a similar program for $15.35.
Norman's residential monthly price for waste pick up: $14
Norman's commercial monthly price for waste pick up (per unit): $20
Oklahoma City's residential monthly price for waste pick up: $23
Edmond's residential monthly price for waste pick up: $15
Nairn said a commercial and multi-family recycling program is a high priority for the advisory board, City Council and citizens of Norman — but it’s complicated.
“Commercial is more complicated,” Nairn said. “A lot of cities do it. I think we have to figure it out, but we’ve really been pushing for several years to figure that out, and part of the problem is if you institute commercial recycling as mandatory, it takes a vote of the people to approve that, whether it’s for residents or businesses.”
Nairn said, as a city, Norman has frequent voting on local issues, but voter turnout is often low. While Nairn and members of City Council receive frequent requests for more expansive recycling programs, the residential recycling program took two turns on the ballot to pass.
“As far as universal, city-wide (recycling), I just don’t think we’re there yet, and we need to figure out a way … to get there,” Nairn said. “The problem right now is commodities and recycling are not worth very much.”
In 2018, the business of recycling faced a setback when China banned recyclable exports into the country to decrease pollution.
“The commodity market is in a very bad way right now,” said Bret Scovill, the city of Norman’s solid waste manager. “It’s a tough, tough market — tougher than it’s ever been — right now.”
Cities across the United States have closed their recycling programs due to a lack of buyers and increasing cost of production, Scovill said. Materials that used to be acceptable are now considered contaminates, which places stricter rules on what items are commodities and what items end up in a landfill.
But while some cities are struggling to adapt, Norman is “doing okay,” Scovill said.
Forty percent of Norman’s total waste is recycled or composted, which is 5 percent above the national average as of 2015, according to a 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Norman knows how to recycle,” Scovill said. “It’s unusual and Norman’s an exception. Other cities are struggling.”
With the stricter rules placed on acceptable and non-acceptable recyclables, many cities have heavy amounts of contamination at their drop centers, Scovill said. If a load of recyclables is two-thirds contaminated, that load is instead taken to a landfill by the processing company, and the city responsible for the load will then have to pay a residual fee for the labor. However, Scovill said Norman’s drop centers have little, if any, contamination.
“Norman’s peculiar — the other cities don’t report this, they say they have real problems with contamination at their drop centers,” Scovill said. “Our cardboard is accepted as 100-percent pure … (we) have 92-percent participation rates at the residential level … our drop centers are clean — Norman does it right.”
Scovill and his team visit Norman’s drop centers daily, transporting the community’s recyclables to a material-recovering facility in Oklahoma City where the items are separated, cleaned and mashed into one commodity to be sold to buyers across the nation.
WHAT CAN YOU RECYCLE?
glass (Norman only)
plastic numbers 1-7 (with exceptions, 1-2 are favored)
steel and tin (at OU with special coordinaton)
paper bags (Norman only)
toner carts and rechargeable batteries (at OU only, with special coordination)
WHERE CAN YOU RECYCLE IN NORMAN?
Hollywood Shopping Center at McGee and Lindsey Streets
Cleveland County Fairgrounds at 1499 N. Porter Ave.
Fire Station #9 at 3001 E. Alameda (no glass)
WHERE CAN YOU RECYCLE ON CAMPUS?
Adams, Couch and Walker centers (trash rooms and cabinets in lobbies)
Cate 3 (each wing inside entry doors and main lounge)
Boren Hall (hallways, academic commons and theater)
Apartments: Traditions East and West, Kraetlli Apartments (recycling roll-offs)
Classrooms and open walkways
Various cardboard trailers around campus
Norman’s drop centers collect about 5,000 tons of materials annually, Scovill said. While Norman’s program is successful, Scovill said it’s not enough to simply recycle.
“We don’t want to recycle more — we want to recycle less,” Scovill said. “Recycling begins at the point of purchase. Just don’t buy that stuff to begin with. Don’t buy styrofoam, don’t buy plastic. Reducing was the priority, and we’ve lost that priority. We need to get it back before it becomes a real crisis.”
‘We did try to implement it, but it wasn’t able to happen.’
The challenges of environmental consciousness in Norman affect more than just businesses — OU students living off campus feel the burden as well.
The city of Norman tried a pilot recycling program with five apartments about a year and a half ago, Scovill said. But when the pilot program ended, the apartment complexes did not choose to continue providing recycling because of the price — about $150 a month for weekly pickups.
OU student Rafael Anguiano lives at Callaway House Apartments, which was built to include separate chutes for recycling and trash on each floor. But right now, both are being used for trash.
Of the 10 student apartments and condos contacted by The Daily, currently 9 do not offer recycling, although some said they had considered it before.
Anguiano said he talked to his apartment’s management about the lack of recycling, but that management said the services just weren’t viable.
“We saw interest from residents, from the apartment managers themselves, the owners and everybody,” Scovill said. “It was just the matter of the cost of it.”
Scovill said the bulk of the cost comes from the vehicles that collect the recyclables, which can be $300,000 or more. In some cases, apartments may have been able to reduce trash enough to offset the cost — but, since the pilot program ended, no one knows.
“I would hope the apartment complex would just be willing to eat the cost of it,” said Josie Phillips, an economics and international studies senior who lives at 2900. “But even if it meant a small rent increase, I think a fair amount of people would still be interested in having recycling.”
While Scovill said the city saw a lack of interest from apartments, some student apartment employees said their complexes had trouble coordinating recycling with the city of Norman.
Callaway House can’t use its recycling chutes because Norman did not approve recycling for an apartment of its size, said Fletcher Young, community assistant at Callaway House.
“We did try to implement it, but it wasn’t able to happen,” Young said.
Last summer, Phillips drafted a petition in hopes of gathering enough signatures and convincing 2900 to provide recycling. She lost motivation and never finished her petition, but she still feels “weird” not being able to recycle at her apartment complex, she said.
Many students may lack motivation to take their recycling to different spots in town, although they would recycle if their apartment offered the service, Phillips said.
The lack of recycling services at home has prompted students to find alternatives.
Anguiano cuts down on single-use plastics and gives his cans to a fellow resident to recycle. Phillips has friends who take turns with their roommates in taking recyclables to the centers in Norman.
“Obviously, I want to do everything I can within my ability, but there is a reason that the saying is, ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ — ‘recycle’ being the third on that list,” Anguiano said.
But Phillips said she still thinks it is reasonable to require all apartment complexes above a certain size to offer recycling.
“It would make a marginal difference, but the only way to make a big difference is to make a lot of marginal differences,” Phillips said.