Editor’s note: This story, which I wrote for this week’s CityLife, first aired on 8NewsNow on Monday. To watch that video, click here.
In 1999, Republic Services inked extra-long extensions to its franchise agreements with Las Vegas and Clark County.
Among the reasons the company gave to justify the contract, which for Clark County won’t expire until 2035, was fixing the poorly capped Sunrise Landfill and the twice-weekly trash service offered to valley residents.
In the years since, Republic has wrangled with the county (and even threatened legal action) over paying the full costs for the Sunrise fix, after costs there skyrocketed. And now, the other selling point — twice-weekly trash pickup — may become a thing of the past permanently in some valley neighborhoods.
At issue is a push in Las Vegas to increase the paltry recycling rate. And as part of this push, a recycling committee and Republic Services in 2007 recommended various pilot programs for local governments. In some, trash would be picked up weekly, along with weekly recycling pickups using a single, 96-gallon cart into which all types of recyclable materials could be tossed. In others, twice weekly trash pickup and once-weekly recycling would be tried. And in still others, the status quo (twice-weekly trash pickup, every-other-week recycling) would be maintained.
But these recycling pilot programs have been in place — even expanding — for years. And that has some elected officials crying foul.
“That took services away from people, and no longer was it really a study,” said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. “It was a way, a back door way, in my opinion, to force people into the one [trash pickup] and one [recycling pickup] and giving up their [twice-weekly] trash pickup.”
Indeed, in North Las Vegas, 40,000 of the 60,000 households are on the once-weekly trash/once-weekly recycling program, the only such pilot program to be attempted there.
Giunchigliani has pushed Republic Services — thus far, without success — to continue twice-weekly trash pickup and move recycling pickups to once a week in the entire valley, a move the company says would cost more and require a rate increase. The county is currently studying the costs of such a program, but Republic Services has shown no inclination to yield.
Bob Coyle, vice president of public affairs and government relations for Republic Services, said his company is looking to provide the kind of enhanced recycling service local governments have requested.
“We’re more than happy to provide that level of service. However, we made it clear with all the county commissioners that that would involve a rate increase,” Coyle said. “We’ll provide whatever level of service the elected officials want us to provide. We’re more than happy to keep twice a week trash and once every other week recycling, if that’s what they want.”
But, Coyle added, his company has been asked to improve recycling: “The issue is, they want to increase recycling, and they want a better recycling. And all we’ve done is give them options for those better recycling programs.”
And by all accounts, those better recycling programs have worked well. According to Coyle, residents in the various pilot programs in Clark County all increased their recycling, but those in the once-weekly trash/once-weekly recycling program showed the largest increase, from a paltry 3.5 percent before to more than 25 percent in the pilot program. That combination is also the most efficient and cost-effective, he said.
Moreover, according to a survey of North Las Vegas residents by UNLV researchers, a whopping 83 percent said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the program, despite the loss of one trash pickup day every week.
Don’t count northwest Las Vegas resident James Thompson in that group, however. Thompson attended a meeting of Clark County’s recycling program to protest the drop to a weekly trash pickup.
“I’m upset that, in so many different ways, from the start to the finish, that Republic Services has gamed the system,” Thompson said. “That’s my opinion.”
His two-story house has five people — including young children in diapers — living under its roof. And while Thompson is lucky enough to have an extra-wide side yard in which he can store his trash cans, he said his neighbors aren’t so lucky and must use their garages, which can cook trash in the summer heat and generate foul odors.
Thompson said he easily fills his 96-gallon trash cart twice a week, and he wants it picked up twice weekly, too. If he’s forced into a weekly pickup, he said he knows what he’ll do.
“I’ll just put the trash in the recycle tote, very bluntly,” he said. “Look, I understand that it’s a problem and that we all have some responsibility here. … And as much as I want to help, as much as I understand that I have some responsibility here — you know, I got a greater responsibility to my family. I’m not going to recycle and then have trash bags lined up in my backyard or in my garage.”
For the record, Coyle said residents in the once-weekly program who find they need an additional trash can will be provided one free of charge. But reports of residents putting trash into the recycle bins have plagued the pilot program.
Thompson also objects to the fact that Republic will increase revenues on the program; as recycling increases, so does the amount Republic gets for selling bulk materials to recyclers. In addition, the company expects to reduce its workers’ compensation costs by using trucks with automated arms to empty trash cans, instead of having workers do the job.
Another frustration: Thompson said the decision is being made by elected officials without a vote of actual customers. “There’s really nothing I can do. This is one of those responsibilities that individual residents give up to the city and the county,” he said.
He may be right: The city of North Las Vegas had scheduled a vote for Dec. 15 (as this issue went to press) to make its pilot program permanent, the first valley city to take that step. But pilot programs continue in Henderson, Las Vegas and Clark County, none of which have a fixed end date.
“I think the pilot projects have been chipping away at the franchise agreements, absolutely,” Giunchigliani said. “And that pilot project, which has gone on, in my opinion, far too long, has decreased people’s services and has, in my opinion, violated the franchise agreement.”
UPDATE: The city of North Las Vegas on Wednesday voted unanimously to make it’s pilot project permanent.