Peter van der Linde, owner of Van der Linde Recycling

For 20 years, Charlottesville and Albemarle County relied on a public agency, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, to manage their recycling and trash disposal. But in 2010, the city dumped the agency in favor of Peter van der Linde’s Materials Recovery Facility in Zion Crossroads — against whom the RSWA had just settled a lawsuit in a fight over trash fees.

Now, the county is pondering the same move for its recycling. At a July work session, Albemarle supervisors spoke in favor of shutting down the RSWA-operated Ivy Transfer Station, a facility with growing maintenance costs and a shrinking customer base.

Instead, the county would hire a private contractor to run three “convenience centers” where residents could bring their waste and recycling. The only contractor to submit a proposal was Peter van der Linde’s company, Container Rentals.

“I think the recommendation, given all we’ve heard, is a good one,” said Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker. “It’ll provide a more convenient service for citizens.”

County staff estimated that closing the transfer station, at the home of the now closed Ivy Landfill, and operating three convenience centers would cost less than $195,000 annually. Alternatively, operating and staffing the RSWA could cost about $435,000 per year. Currently, the county’s contract with the RSWA extends through the end of 2013.

The waste authority has nine full-time employees for the site, but how many might lose their jobs is undetermined as some would continue to be involved in remediation work at the landfill, officials have said.

Thomas L. Frederick Jr., RSWA’s executive director, said the agency’s costs have risen because of private solid waste haulers like van der Linde’s taking the business.

“The RSWA was established as a public agency to provide reuse, recycling and disposal services for the city and county, including public-service programs for political and social needs that were never self-sufficient,” Frederick explained. “This purpose is very different from a private business that can choose its own markets based on profitability.”

Frederick said that the RSWA offers programs no one else can.

“Many citizens find the household hazardous waste collections an extremely important local public service,” Frederick said. “No private company has found a successful way to operate this for profit.”  

Rooker said at the work session that another RSWA-run service — the McIntire Recycling Center — also was worth keeping.

“It’s a big deal for certain people in the community to have a place where they can bring separated recycling,” Rooker said. “Our contribution to McIntire is certainly not any more than the cost of operating one of the convenience centers.”

If the county contracted with van der Linde, all mixed waste brought to the convenience centers would be sorted at the company’s facility in Zion Crossroads. “We pull every possible recyclable item out of your household garbage,” boasts the company’s website.

If that is the case, why maintain a center where residents can separate their own recycling?

“There is mass confusion about recycling in Charlottesville,” said Teri Kent, known to many as “Better World Betty.” Together with local nonprofit GreenBlue, Kent has formed a task force to champion source-separated recycling.

“Many avid recyclers are switching away from source separation to what they believe is a good recycling strategy: a mixed-waste ‘all-in-one’ bin,” Kent wrote in a letter to Albemarle supervisors. “Haulers are using the term ‘single stream’ recycling incorrectly and advertising inflated recycling [recovery] rates for household trash.”

Sorting waste by machine instead of relying on citizens to do it by hand means that van der Linde’s operation produces a lot of recyclables — more than 22,000 tons in 2011. But because mixing waste can lead to contamination, his recycling rate is only 28 percent.

Source separation allows the RSWA to achieve a higher rate (34 percent in 2011). But the RSWA generates fewer than 5,600 tons of recyclables.

An ideal scenario would produce clean recyclables in large volumes. At the work session, supervisors inquired whether it would be possible for van der Linde to offer both separated recycling and mixed waste sorting at the convenience centers.

“Is it that difficult to separate out recyclables if people want to do that?” asked Supervisor Duane E. Snow. “I agree with Dennis [Rooker], a lot of people want to separate their recyclables or at least put them in a different bin from their household trash.”

Michael Ledford, CEO of Van der Linde Recycling, told the board that it was not only possible.

“We would propose to set [each center] up as a traditional convenience center, with a couple of compacters for trash, one for cardboard, multiple open-top containers and some closed for the paper,” Ledford said. “If people still want to separate, they’re more than welcome to.”

The company would bale and sell any separated recyclables immediately. Mixed waste would still be taken to the van der Linde facility and sorted. And thanks to new machinery, Ledford claimed that the facility’s recycling rate could jump to about 50 percent next year.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of money on a new process,” Ledford said. “We’re literally tearing out what we’ve got and replacing it with optical sorters that recognize what plastic is and … machines that recognize aluminum and pull it off the belt.”

Of the waste that van der Linde does not recycle, half is sent to an incinerator near James Madison University that burns the trash to generate energy. The other half is buried in a landfill outside of Richmond.

According to Kent, the best solution would be to avoid convenience centers altogether.

“I would prefer curbside recycling in an expanded urban ring,” Kent said. “That would save time and gas.”

However, if Albemarle County does opt for the centers, Kent said she hopes that officials work hard to locate them strategically, advertise them widely and educate people about how to use them.

County residents will have the chance to share their input at a work session on solid waste in October.