Part III Going green. What will it take?
By revisiting recycling
Tulsans love their trash service. Just ask Michael Patton, executive director of the Metropolitan Environmental Trust (The M.e.t.). The relatively inexpensive (about $13 per month), twice-a-week curbside service in effect robs people of motivation to be more responsible about the amount of trash they generate.
“Twice-a-week trash service means it’s cheap to throw things away here,” Patton says. “We are one of the last cities in the country to offer twice-per-week collection and have no limits. The norm elsewhere is once-a-week service.”
The M.e.t. operates 11 recycling centers in the Tulsa metro area, which collect about 4 million pounds of material each year. It also employs more than 100 workers with disabilities. According to The M.e.t., the average Tulsa household generates 220 pounds of garbage per month, of which about 50 pounds would be recyclable. However, in spite of years of recycling efforts, only about 20 percent of Tulsans recycle with any regularity.
“Although we do have thousands of people who are recycling, obviously we still have a long way to go,” Patton says.
The mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle seems to fall on many deaf ears in Tulsa, in large part because Oklahoma has an abundance of cheap landfill space. But in other parts of the country, cities simply didn’t have the luxury of cheap landfill space and were forced to come up with “greener” alternatives years ago, Patton says.
“A landfill is my reminder of failure,” Patton notes. “It says, ‘We bought too much and didn’t reuse it and now we have an ugly, smelly landfill.’ We have too many landfills, and now there are people trucking their trash into Oklahoma from other states.”
Thanks to Mayor Taylor’s emphasis on creating a more sustainable city, Patton says he believes Tulsa will soon turn a corner on recycling. He’d like to see the twice-weekly trash service reduced to once-a-week with everybody also given a recycling container. Additionally, he’d like to see limits placed on the amount of garbage people can place at the curb.
“There are a lot of politics here,” he admits. “People are afraid to lose twice-a-week trash service and there are also contracts in place. It’s really a matter of political will.”
Patton suggested a “pay as you throw” fee, or a volume-based rate on trash.
Patton says he believes that by 2012, after hauling contracts expire and awareness grows, recycling will get a huge boost.
“I firmly believe the dream of a more sustainable city will come true,” he says. “We’re doing this for a better Tulsa and so that we do not sacrifice the quality of life for future generations.”
Currently, the city of Tulsa offers curbside recycling service on a voluntary basis, costing participating customers $2 extra a month. Laureen Gibson Gilroy, the city’s recycling coordinator, says the fee has remained the same over the decade since voluntary curbside recycling began. She says she is aware of criticism that the city is “punishing” people by levying the fee on those who choose to recycle. In 1999, when the program started, there wasn’t broad enough interest in recycling to justify a citywide, mandated recycling policy. Nevertheless, 2008 may have been a breakthrough year for the recycling program.
Demand for curbside recycling “has been going through the roof,” Gilroy says. In December 2007, there were 9,198 recycling customers. That number had grown to 11,934 by last December, nearly a 30 percent increase.
“The big story is that more people are more willing now to pay an extra $2 to do the right thing,” she says.
Gilroy speculates that as outsiders move to Tulsa from areas where recycling is the norm, they quickly sign on.
“They ask, ‘Where’s the recycling service? When is it going to be picked up?’” she says.
If the Tulsa Authority for the Recovery of Energy (TARE), often referred to as the trash board, follows the recommendations of a study it commissioned, then curbside recycling will be available citywide and everyone, whether they recycle or not, will pay an additional fee.
The study, conducted last year by Seattle-based firm R.W. Beck, also advises the city to go to once-a-week trash pickup with separate recycling containers provided. Lawn clippings and other yard waste would be disposed of in special paper bags.
And recycling makes a lot of sense. Gilroy notes that for every 15,000 tons of waste, nine jobs are created if that waste is recycled. By contrast, just one job is created if that waste is dumped in a landfill.
“I think recycling is crucial for sustainability,” Gilroy says. “It’s symbolic for not wasting resources, and looking forward, it benefits the economy by creating jobs.”
By protecting our urban forest
Sustainability, of course, is about more than public policy and creating jobs. It’s also about actual living things — things like trees — and how they impact our environment and quality of life. Tulsa’s urban forest, in fact, may be the best claim the city currently has to being green, at least in a literal sense.
In December 2007, Tulsa’s tree canopy suffered a major setback when an ice storm destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of trees citywide. Anna America, executive director of Up with Trees, says the sight of so much destruction brought her to tears.
“I thought, how are we ever going to recover from this?” she recalls.
Tulsa slowly but surely is recovering. Up with Trees partnered with the City of Tulsa in the ReGreen Tulsa program with the lofty goal of planting 20,000 new trees citywide by the end of 2010. Entirely privately funded, the program has planted more than 2,000 trees so far.
“Trees are an important part of sustainability in a real, elemental way,” she says. “They take the stuff we breathe out and give us stuff we breathe in. Not only do they help provide cleaner air and water, (but) they help reduce energy consumption around buildings by shading, they reduce the heat island effect in paved areas and lengthen the life of pavement. They just make any place nicer and more livable, which helps us retain our population and attract new people.”
Trees do a lot of things we don’t even think about, she adds.
“We need to take care of trees because they take care of us,” she says.