Throwing Money in the Trash: Can the City of Atlanta Restructure and Expand its Existing Recycling Program in Order to Make it a Revenue Stream and Reduce the amount of Waste being deposited in area Landfills?
Date of Award
Master of Public Administration (MPA)
The purpose of this project is to evaluate whether the City of Atlanta can earn revenue from the sale of its recyclable goods by changing the program’s structure and improving citizen participation. This paper examines the background of the City of Atlanta’s recycling program, along with other recycling programs in metropolitan Atlanta. The paper also compares and contrasts Atlanta’s program with cities outside of Georgia to identify best practices that may be able to be adopted by the City of Atlanta.
Methodology: Primary data were gathered through interviews with city officials including recycling coordinators from the following metropolitan Atlanta cities: Atlanta, Smyrna, Conyers, Roswell, Milton, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Decatur and East Point. Additionally, the Director of Keep Georgia Beautiful was interviewed. Keep Georgia Beautiful is an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, a national program that supports its local affiliates by providing educational resources and public awareness campaigns (Keep America Beautiful, 2006, 3). A survey instrument was used to evaluate City of Atlanta’s residents’ attitudes regarding the current recycling program.
The questions were structured to expose reasons for nonparticipation and identify ways that the City can close the gap between the existing participants and non participants. The sample consisted of 118 subjects. The survey was completed by self administered questionnaire in person or online.
Secondary research was used to gain a better understanding of the City’s recycling program, how surrounding cities administer recycling programs, and the intergovernmental relationship between the federal government, the State of Georgia, and the City of Atlanta; as it relates to the disposal of recyclables. Recycling programs for cities outside of the State of Georgia were also referenced. Only cites similar in size and population were considered so that a clear comparisons could be made.
• Of the 118 subjects surveyed, 111 (or 94 percent), reported being homeowners.
• Of the 118 subjects surveyed 112 (or 95 percent), answered that they would participate in the recycling program or increase their participation if they were aware that the program generated money for the City.
• Seventy two percent of the respondents who do not recycle through the City of Atlanta’s curbside program, utilize drop off centers for recyclable goods not currently run by the City of Atlanta.
• Fifty percent of the respondents that do not currently participate in the City’s recycling program cited being unaware of a program as being the reason for their non participation.
• Twenty nine percent of the respondents cited inadequate service as the reason for non-participation.
Challenges: The City of Atlanta’s budget deficit is likely the biggest challenge to expanding and or modifying the current recycling program. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division released a study in 2003 which reported that the landfills serving metro Atlanta will reach zero capacity in 19 years (Dodd, 2003,1) In 2008, the City only has 14 years to identify a strategy to dispose off the 250,000 tons of waste that it deposits in landfills each year (Hall, 2003,1). The City is growing rapidly and as the population increases so too does the amount of waste generated. The City faces the challenge of cutting costs to overcome the current budget deficit while trying to implement a strategy to address its long range waste disposal issues. In the short term, it will be much less expensive to send trash to landfills instead of recycling centers. This is largely due to Georgia’s low tipping fees. Tipping fees are fees that are charged for each ton of waste deposited in a landfill. Georgia’s tipping fees are among the lowest in the nation, making landfill use the most cost effective choice in the short term. The City will have to overcome the attractiveness of utilizing the less expensive short term solution and focus at minimum on sustaining the recycling program to address a long term problem.
The second challenge is rebuilding a program in which many residents have lost faith.
During the course of administering this survey, respondents expressed their frustrations with the program. A range of criticism was shared. Yet the program’s inconsistency was the most frequently reported concern. If cuts are made to the program in the short term that affects the programs level of consistency, it will be difficult to regain participants in the long run.
The following recommendations are being made to the City of Atlanta regarding the participation rate, program modifications, and obtaining additional resources.
Participation: Based on the results of this study, the City of Atlanta should consider the following to increase participation levels:
• Highlight the potential revenue that the City can recapture through the sale of recyclable goods. Based on the survey results, doing so would encourage residents to participate or increase their current participation.
• Include drop off centers in the recycling program mix. According to the research findings, cities with the most successful programs offer both curbside pick-up and drop off locations.
• Ensure that participants have the necessary bins to deposit recyclables. Not having a bin was cited as the number two reason for nonparticipation in the current program.
Program Type: Because the City has budget challenges it may be wise to look into a program with bi-weekly or monthly pick-ups instead of running a program with weekly service. For example, Nashville, Tennessee has instituted a successful recycling program with monthly pick-ups. The city has done so by enlisting community support through the use of block captains responsible for reminding residents the day prior to the monthly pick-up. Results from this study revealed that nearly 5 percent of the respondents do not recycle because they forget to put the bin out for collection.
Additional Recommendation: The City of Atlanta should become an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. Although affiliates pay annual dues, the dues were reported as being nominal by the Keep America Beautiful affiliates interviewed for this study. Becoming an affiliate will allow the City to have access to educational resources, research tools, and greater grant funding opportunities, all of which would be helpful toward program sustainability.