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Little Rock Mayor: Pay residents to recycle?

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Mayor Mark Stodola says only 35 percent of Little Rock's households recycle. Would providing them some monetary incentive increase participation?

When we throw an empty Dr. Pepper bottle or stack of newspapers in the recycling bin, we know we’re doing the right thing. But is that enough? Little Rock, Ark., Mayor Mark Stodola says maybe not. He’s exploring the idea of providing some incentive for his constituents to recycle (currently only 35 percent of households do). For instance, they may receive a gift card once they’ve earned a certain number of points for recycling.

Last week, I talked with the mayor about Little Rock’s recycling, alternative fuels and how he would grade his city in terms of sustainability. Excerpts of our conversation are below.

How would you rank Little Rock today in terms of sustainability?

I would rank us, if I was giving us a grade, probably in the B category. I think we’re probably a C in our ability to communicate to the public how green we are.

  • We received about $2 million in stimulus money. With that money, we are putting LED lights in many of our municipal buildings. (We converted all our street lights to LED in 2003.)
  • We’re putting in new energy efficient HVAC systems.
  • We’re installing a solar hot water panel in our public works building.
  • We’re doing methane recovery at our city landfill.
  • We have ground-source heat pumps in some city-owned buildings.
  • We’ve installed light reflective roof membranes on some of our flat roofs.
  • We have a policy in the city that we try to make every building LEED certified, especially the new ones.
  • We’ve experimented with a wind turbine at one of our community garden projects.
  • We have installed bicycle racks on all of our buses

What’s new in public transportation?

We have public transit, and we just ordered 12 more energy efficient diesel buses, run by Central Arkansas Transit. They have studied the issue of trying to look at some CNG [compressed natural gas] applications and just couldn’t make the numbers work.

There’s a debate about whether CNG can catch on. The cost of fueling stations is what's making it difficult to advance on this quickly. We have a slow-fill CNG station, and we have two CNG vehicles and our airport, which has been running since 2003 with all their vehicles on CNG.

What's your opinion?

I think the verdict is still out. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and studying on it. Certainly, alternative forms of energy and fuel are important, whether that winds up being electric, CNG or gasoline. But I believe electricity has got a real option in the future, and I think gas does too. But [for CNG] I’ve got to have a fast-fueling station, and the cost of that is close to a million dollars. We have 123 square miles to police and run ambulance and fire service to, and one fueling station—fast or slow--does not help in the popularity of that as an alternative energy source. I think deployment is a big issue. It takes eight hours to fuel our CNG vehicles.

How is Little Rock doing in recycling?

We do residential recycling as part of our city services. We have about 60,000 households that get recycling pick-up weekly. Waste Management estimates we have about 35 percent of the households that recycle, which is a pretty decent number. I’d like to see it higher than that. I’ve been looking at ordinances to require recycling at some of our multi-family units. Some of them have bins, but not all of them, and they’re’ not required to, and the city does not pick up for multifamily and commercial buildings.

Part of it is how our waste contractor deals with recycling. I've been urging Waste Management to put in a single-stream murf [MRF, or materials recovery facility] for our city. Now, they sort the products by hand into different areas. They sort on the street and then do further sorting at their facility. A single-stream murf would help us get more recycling done.

What’s a murf?

A big machine that sorts mechanically. It’s a question of volume. They need enough material for it to make sense. Right now Little Rock and North Little Rock are on the contract with Waste Management, and I’m hoping to convince the other cities around us that it’s cost efficient for us all work with them to do this.

What are you doing about the 65 percent of your households that aren’t recycling?

We continue to raise the level of communication about this. We have things on our public access channel, and we’ve had several public service announcements to increase awareness.

One of the things that the Department of Energy approved as part of our stimulus plan was a desire I had to create an energy awareness campaign. We purchased 40,000 CFLs [compact florescent light]  for distribution to our citizens. The first thing I did was work with our schools. We came up with a science lesson plan with our teachers on energy efficiency. We distributed the bulbs to fifth through 12th graders in our public schools, teachers did lessons on it, and we hope they will go home and educate their families. It’s been very positive. We have about 20,000 out to the schools and are finishing up the distribution to our 160 neighborhood associations.

We also have Little Rock Recycles, which distributes recyclable bags. I bet we’ve distributed 20,000 at least.

Ultimately what I want to do is create a better benefit to recycling than the intellectual one—that it’s a good thing to do. There are some companies—Recycle Now, RecycleBank--that have systems where they weigh the recyclables, and that turns into points, and the points turn into Visa cards or gift cards, where it’s actually got some value. I’m hoping we can do something with that.

I like that idea.

You have some areas of town, which every city has, and the lower the median income the less likely they are to recycle. So if we can provide a monetary value to something, that really goes back to the homes, I think we can really boost our recycling.

So maybe I should give myself a better grade, a good solid B.

But there’s still a disconnect between that grade and the grade people think Little Rock deserves?

Sure. We’re a lot more energy conscious and green than many people perceive, even my own committee. Having looked at some other cities through ordinance development, we’re probably not there yet, that’s probably why we are probably a B. I want to do a better job of making the public aware of all the energy conscious things the city is doing.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure