Cedar City’s Recycling Conundrum Mirrors Other Small Cities

Cedar City's Recycling Conundrum Mirrors Other Small Cities
Credit: Terence Ong (source)

One of the things I miss the most from living in a larger urban area is curbside recycling. Salt Lake County has a pretty great system. You get two full-sized bins at no extra charge (though you have to ask for the second one), there’s no presort requirement, they take everything but glass, and they get picked up weekly on the same day as your trash. We’d often fill up both bins before our trash was half full. (Full disclosure: we’re kind of Amazon junkies, so most of our load was cardboard.)

Cedar City does recycling, but it’s somewhat limited. You can drop your stuff off at several different locations around town, but they don’t accept cardboard. The bins are also only picked up every other week, so they have a tendency to fill up fast. You’re stuck keeping piles of trash in your garage and trying to remember to go drop them off, hoping that maybe the bins aren’t full, and driving your cardboard clear out to Parowan or St. George. These aren’t exactly awesome options.

With this in mind, I attended the Cedar City city council meeting last week to see what the city planned to do about improving the options here. I was impressed that they’ve all appeared to really dig deep into the ups and downs of improving the recycling options in the city. The council agreed to move forward with a plan to increase pickup of the bins from every other week to twice a week, but I got the feeling that the council knows this is a stopgap measure.

So what’s keeping Cedar City, and other smaller Utah cities, from moving forward with a full curbside program?

The obvious problem is the small size of the city. At just shy of 30,000 people (and almost 47,000 in Iron County as a whole), there’s not enough population to sustain a local sorting and processing facility. Stone Castle Recycling was the largest local company to do it and they ended up going under amidst a plethora of financial problems. The city contracts with Washington County to ship it to St. George because that’s where the facilities are. If the city were to start its own curbside program, it would need to find at least $650K in one-time costs for trucks and bins. That wouldn’t even include the cost of operation or building a facility to process it.

Cedar City has, unfortunately, another problem: the Iron County dump. Currently, the city is charged by the dump on a per can basis. This means that any efforts that reduce the amount of garbage don’t actually result in any cost savings for the city. The city has tried to get the county to change to per-ton charges, but they aren’t budging since it would cost them a lot of money if and when recycling picks up. This stance by the county is somewhat short-sighted as it doesn’t seem to account for defraying the need to open a new dump when the existing one hits capacity. It’s also a big hit to the city since recycling is now $5 per ton less expensive thanks to federal offices chipping in.

When it comes down to it, the ideological reasons for recycling will always be dwarfed by the plain and simple dollars and cents one. Larger metro areas like the Wasatch Front have the volume to make it an easy decision. For Utah’s rural areas, it’s going to be a much harder pill to swallow.

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