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Details emerge in Mobile recycling revamp — and so does a potential problem

If a plan to revamp Mobile’s recycling program goes through, patrons will no longer have to separate various recyclable materials by hand. (File photo)

Just as plans to revamp Mobile’s recycling system seemed about to come into focus, questions about possible legal issues muddied the issue on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, changes have been evident. At the established recycling center at 1451 Government St., the bins and Dumpsters into which patrons have sorted their various recyclable materials have been replaced by a "single-stream" setup, in which everything goes into a single hopper. The mixed mass of metal, plastic and paper is then compacted and shipped off to a facility where it is separated via a mostly automated process.

Word has circulated that this was the beginning of a citywide switch to a single-stream process, with multiple drop-off sites to be opened throughout Mobile. But there’s been little in the way of solid information about where those sites would be and when they would open.

On Tuesday, two contracts related to the planned switch made their first appearance on the Mobile City Council agenda: One, for $125,000 through September 2019, would pay Emerald Coast Utilities Authority to take and process recyclables collected in Mobile. The other, for $900,000 over a three-year period, would pay Amwaste LLC for the rental of equipment used to collect the material and transport it to the Florida Panhandle location where it will be processed.

At the council’s preliminary discussion session Tuesday morning, initial discussion was heavily favorable to the project. Don Rose, the city’s director of procurement, said there are factors that offset the cost of the contracts: The city will be paid by the ton for the materials it collects, and will potentially save on landfill costs – particularly if the new setup leads to an increase in recycling. "It’s just a great financial deal for us," said Rose.

Bill Harkins, executive director of public services, said the city administration plans to establish recycling collection points at several locations around the city, likely starting with a spot on the grounds of the Mobile Police Department’s First Precinct facility at Virginia and Broad Streets, and another at the Western Administrative Complex on Museum Drive across from the Mobile Museum of Art. Harkins said that others will be added, probably on the grounds of other city properties such as police and fire stations. The goal, he said, is to have one collection site in each of the city’s seven districts.

The Council seemed broadly favorable to the plan, and supportive of anything that would promote recycling. Councilman Levon Manzie described the city’s current recycling rate as "anemically low."

Then Councilwoman Bess Rich raised a question related to a years-old legal dispute between Mobile’s Solid Waste Authority and Waste Management, the company that disposes of the garbage collected by the city. In the suit, Waste Management argued that the Authority had violated its contract by sending yard waste to another landfill, not the Chastang Landfill used by Waste Management, thus depriving Waste Management of revenue to which it was entitled. Two courts have ruled in the company’s favor.

"Would this be viewed as the same exact thing?" Rich asked. "Are we setting ourselves up for a problem?"

City Attorney Ricardo Woods said that in his opinion it would not, because the city already has operated a recycling program. The established program hasn’t been a source of conflict with Waste Management so the new one shouldn’t be either, he said.

Pete Riehm, chair of the Solid Waste Authority, said he wasn’t sure, and would like a chance to review the proposed contracts. "We found out about this last night," he said.

"We already have a $3 million bill we can’t pay," Riehm said, referring to the judgement in the previous suit, and he would like to avoid facing another such bill as a result of city action.

Councilman Joel Daves said he could appreciate the arguments on both sides, but didn’t want to see the council "frozen in action" on an important issue.

"We support the concept of recycling, we support cost-saving," said Riehm. The Authority simply wants a chance to avoid a costly dispute, he said.

At its regular meeting later in the morning, the Council followed its normal procedure and held over the contracts one week, allowing for discussion of the potential legal issues before a likely vote next week.

In his remarks at the meeting, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson firmly expressed his support for the plan, describing recycling as "a huge opportunity" for the city to improve the way it does business.