With Vancouver trash, business is picking up

Councilors eye ways to combat growing litter concerns in city

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

Published:

 

By the Numbers

$3 million: What WSDOT spends on litter collection each year.

10,475 tons: How much litter the departments of Ecology and Transportation collected in the last two years.

$200,000: Average annual cost of cleaning up litter and trash in Vancouver over the last three years.

162 tons: How much litter and trash was collected from parks, roads and public right of ways in Vancouver in 2014.

By the Numbers

$3 million: What WSDOT spends on litter collection each year.

10,475 tons: How much litter the departments of Ecology and Transportation collected in the last two years.

$200,000: Average annual cost of cleaning up litter and trash in Vancouver over the last three years.

162 tons: How much litter and trash was collected from parks, roads and public right of ways in Vancouver in 2014.

In the last two years, Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith has heard many complaints regarding trash strewn about the city’s parks and highways.

“Initially, I heard about the parks being dirty and not enough trash bins in the parks,” Smith said. “Generally, where the trash is concentrated is right around intersections. I have had several complaints that there’s a lot more trash out there.”

Smith isn’t alone in his impression that the city has become a dirtier place in recent years. Other councilors have heard the message, as well.

But cracking down on litter is only one aspect of how the councilors hope to keep Vancouver clean and cut down on the amount of trash ending up in the wrong places over the next year.

Cost of trash

Collecting litter on state highways costs the Washington State Department of Transportation more than $3 million year. Between WSDOT and the state Department of Ecology, about 10,475 tons of litter have been picked up on state and county roads in the last two years.

In Vancouver, the annual cost of cleaning up litter and illegal dumping has hovered around $200,000 for the last three years, said Rich McConaghy, the city’s environmental resources manager. That accounted for about 162 tons of litter and trash collected from parks, roads and public right of ways in the city last year, McConaghy said.

And the total doesn’t include bits and pieces street crews grab off the ground during their regular runs picking up trash bins. Overall, trash and litter collection is on the rise throughout the city, said Brian Potter, the operations superintendent for the city’s grounds maintenance crew.

“Garbage collection continues to increase,” Potter said. “That’s largely because we’re seeing more people using the parks and we’re having more events.”

Part of the problem is the crews that took care of everything from maintaining right of ways, cemeteries and public parks were significantly scaled back during the Great Recession, said Loretta Callahan, a spokeswoman for Vancouver’s Public Works Department.

“The numbers of the staffing there decreased by half,” Callahan said.

Cleaning up highways

Much of the onus for controlling litter falls on inmates through a joint program between the departments of Ecology and Corrections that puts them to work cleaning up trash along highways and county roads. In 2013, inmate crews picked up more than 221,000 pounds of litter throughout Clark County, an increase of nearly 14,000 pounds from the previous year.

The crews focus on more than just litter, though. They are also responsible for killing and cutting back weeds and overgrown shrubs on medians and shoulders, an issue in need of more attention in recent years, Councilor Jack Burkman said.

“We do have neighborhoods that take care of some of this, but you can’t safely access medians,” Burkman said. “We need crews out there.”

The state sees overgrown vegetation along highways as a threat to driver safety, blocking traffic, signs and wildlife from view. But it’s also an aesthetic issue, as the plants grow out of control during the warmer months, Councilor Bart Hansen said.

“It’s one of those issues that you take for granted until it goes south, and then it’s right in your face,” Hansen said.

In November, the councilors decided to beef up the city’s grounds crew staff for the next two years and purchase new equipment and another vehicle to step up trash collection efforts. The deal will, in turn, free up a staffer to work on coordination for more weed control efforts with the Department of Corrections, Callahan said.

Plastic bag ban

Along similar lines of the keeping the city clean, Councilor Alishia Topper is at the start of an initiative that could lead Vancouver to become the next city with a ban on plastic grocery bags.

“Being close to the water, you know, there’s a lot of concern for plastic bags getting into the water,” Topper said.

Topper began researching the issue in May, looking at how things have gone in other places that have outlawed plastic grocery bags. So far, at least 11 Washington cities have joined Thurston County in imposing bans: Seattle, Olympia, Bellingham, Tumwater, Lacey, Shoreline, Port Townsend, Issaquah, Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Bainbridge Island.

After reaching out to Waste Connections, Topper learned that a significant portion of the problem resides not only in waterways but also in the waste disposal process.

“I found that a large percentage of plastic bags are making it into the recycling bins, when in actuality, they’re not able to be recycled and they get all wound up into the machinery,” Topper said.

Instead of beginning with a ban, Topper hopes to launch an educational campaign about how the bags can be reused or returned to grocery stores after shopping trips.

“If we see an increase in plastic bag recycling, then we’d know the program is working,” she said. “If we don’t see any improvement, and people are still putting their plastic bags in the curb-side carts, then I would actively come forward to the council to consider looking at some kind of ordinance or law to basically get rid of plastic bags.”

She’s not sure how the proposal would play with the rest of the council, but Hansen, Burkman and Smith are at least interested in entertaining the idea.

Smith said he might support a ban on plastic bags, but first, he’d like to study how the experiment has gone in other cities.

But the councilors also share reservations about whether a ban would really cut down on waste. And prohibiting the bags would also mean banning their reuse, as well, Burkaman said.

The subject will likely come up this winter at the council’s next retreat, Smith said.