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Chesterfield could've offered cheaper curbside recycling option to all families but says it was 'undesirable'

Henrico County leaders 'disappointed' in Chesterfield's decision
Generic Recycling -- CVWMA trash and recycling collection Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA)
Posted at 6:40 PM, Oct 07, 2022

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A decision by Chesterfield County leaders to end its curbside recycling services through a provider that partners with several other Central Virginia localities will have implications that go beyond increased costs for Chesterfield residents.

Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said he expects annual recycling expenses in Henrico to rise by at least half a million dollars per year, and the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA) said households in surrounding jurisdictions could have saved roughly $528,000 collectively had Chesterfield chosen a different route, though the impacts are not cut and dry.

Natalia Taylor has called Chesterfield home her entire life and just bought a house in the county. While she and her husband do not currently recycle due to the current annual costs, she said they've recently considered it.

"We were literally just, my husband and I, talking about being able to start recycling soon, and then, with these changes, I feel like that's putting that goal even further away," Taylor said.

The change she referenced is Chesterfield will stop offering families curbside recycling services through CVWMA in July.

CVWMA offers similar services to eight other localities, but Chesterfield is the only locality to require households to "opt-in" to the program. Currently, 62,000 households participate.

Chesterfield asks families to pay $41 a year to partake in the curbside program, but soon, that cost will double or even triple.

“If we want to head in the right direction towards helping the earth and getting closer to that goal, then you would think we would be finding ways to make [recycling] easier for people, not more difficult," Taylor said. "I know people that've already said they're going to stop recycling because of the change."

As the 2023 contract renewal with CVWMA was approaching, Chesterfield asked CVWMA to put out a request for proposals for a subscription-based model in an effort to "provide multiple choices at the most economical rate for Chesterfield residents" and to "encourage the growth of HOA-administered bundled trash and recycling contracts which are already in place in many large county subdivisions," according to county spokesperson Teresa Bonifas.

Bonifas said Chesterfield has preferred a subscription-type approach since 2010. That's when Chesterfield began allowing households the option of not participating in CVWMA curbside recycling and charging other households a fee to continue participating.

However, CVWMA only received one proposal that aligned with Chesterfield's wishes for a subscription model, and it would've cost families about $200 per year.

The county then decided it will end its contract with CVWMA, the first locality to do so, and is now asking residents to buy their own curbside recycling services through private vendors.

Chesterfield has identified four companies to offer services for about $80-$120 annually with this new approach.

"There’s a clear disappointment in the approach that was taken," said Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas about Chesterfield's decision. "I can't really speak to actions in a particular locality, but I can when those actions impact our locality."

Vithoulkas said the loss of Chesterfield’s 62,000 households in the CVWMA regional pool will drive up costs in Henrico.

And he believes Chesterfield residents will start using Henrico drop-off recycling sites. He pointed out that while Henrico has 12 convenience centers for recycling, Chesterfield has two.

“I would put the cost to our residents next year at half-a-million dollars a year, and that cost will continue to increase each and every year that we are without that partner," Vithoulkas said.

A spokesperson for CVWMA said the costs of Chesterfield leaving the program will not be borne by the remaining localities, because services for those eight jurisdictions were procured with Chesterfield out of the equation.

However, CVWMA said each household in the surrounding localities could've saved $2.64 annually had Chesterfield utilized a "base model service" which would include all homes eligible for the curbside program. Collectively, that's a savings of roughly $528,000 across the region, but CVWMA said other unknown factors might've impacted that figure.

CVWMA said Chesterfield did have the option of offering its families curbside recycling for $54-$60 annually, if all homes participated, which is a cheaper option than what private vendors will offer.

But Chesterfield thought that option was "undesirable" because "participating households would have to continue subsidizing the non-participating households, resulting in an annual fee of at least $113 per participating household that would likely increase as others opt out or transition to private options," according to Bonifas.

As a local government, Chesterfield County does not subsidize any portion of the program for its residents.

There's also concern that Chesterfield leaving the program will affect the region's waste diversion rate. Currently, Central Virginia diverts about 60% of waste from landfills. Chesterfield does not believe its decision will drive the rate down.

CVWMA said it will closely monitor the rate, and Vithoulkas said he believes it will be negatively impacted.

"[Chesterfield is] the largest locality in the region population-wise, so there's going to be an impact," Vithoulkas said. "I think those impacts are going to be felt going forward."

Chesterfield said its partnership with CVWMA will still continue, as the county plans to contribute $100,000 to CVWMA annually for education and marketing efforts.

Henrico County contributes $5.4 million annually to CVWMA.

Dan Schmitt, who represents the Brookland District on the Henrico Board of Supervisors, said the board will remain committed to advancing, improving, and broadening recycling initiatives in Henrico.

“When you see an impact placed upon a jurisdiction by another jurisdiction's decisions, it's important to be clearly intentional of staying on the course of environmental stewardship for our residents and to make it as easy as they possibly can to recycle," Schmitt said.

All services including curbside recycling will remain free to Henrico's 96,000 households as Henrico completely subsidizes those services for its residents. Henrico leaders also hinted at a major recycling announcement coming within the next couple months.

Schmitt considers it an investment into the next generation.

"I've got kids who would be on me immediately if we moved an inch in the wrong direction towards recycling. It's because they get what that means for their future," Schmitt said.

Vithoulkas added, "The more we recycle, the more we keep out of the landfill. We can't talk about environmental stewardship and somehow remove opportunities for recycling. If anything, we need to continue to make more items available to be recycled and more opportunities."

Meanwhile, Chesterfield maintains its decision was the most accessible, inclusive, and cost-efficient.

"By introducing free-market competition into the process, residents who want to participate in curbside recycling will receive the best service at the lowest price. This approach can ultimately serve as a model for the region going forward," Bonifas said.

As to the effectiveness of CVWMA's curbside recycling program, a spokesperson for CVWMA said it produces positive outcomes.

"Anyone who recycles with CVWMA can have confidence that their material is being recycled. Most people do recycle correctly. Our biggest issue is recycling contamination, meaning items are entering the stream that can’t be recycled. The most common items that contaminate are plastic bags, food waste, Styrofoam and general household trash. If these are in a recycling container, it can cause the entire contents to be trashed rather than recycled. About 10%-15% of what goes to the recycling facility in Chester goes to a landfill because of contamination. That’s why recycling education is so important," said Julie Buchanan with CVWMA.

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