Sarah Ruholl Sehy opinion column: County should start collecting tipping fee for recycling

On June 18, after two years of inaction and an hour of heated debate, the Effingham County Waste Management Committee voted, 3-1-1, to collect a tipping fee on waste dumped into our local landfill. The lone vote against it was from the landfill operator; the committee chair, county board member John Perry, chose not to vote.

The phrase “tipping fees” has been in heavy rotation in my vocabulary of late, but I know my team, Effingham Recycles, has not yet reached everyone to educate them about this important source of funding for environmental services. Broadly, it is a charge on waste disposed of in a landfill or recycling center. But what we are talking about now is a very specific tipping fee: one collected by the county government on waste dumped into Landfill 33 that can only be spent for certain, environmental purposes. The maximum per statute that can be collected is $1.27/ton.

In 2012, after many years of trying, the county board voted in favor of collecting a fee on waste dumped in Landfill 33 but did not set an amount. The ordinance sat unused on the books for several years before the Waste Management Committee was formed in 2017 to determine what should happen with it. As I mentioned above, that committee has determined that we should absolutely collect one at a minimum of $1/ton, which would result in an estimated $100,000 of annual revenue. That money could represent some desperately needed funding for the Health Department and a dedicated source of funds for recycling and environmental services.

Notice that I said “could represent.” This critical funding source still has to go through the county board, who have consistently indicated they would prefer to not do anything to meet the needs of our community. We have heard repeatedly that they think the environment is a niche issue that almost no one cares about, as though keeping our Earth healthy and safe for future generations is not important. We cannot continue to generate large amounts of waste and then simply bury it in the ground. It is not sustainable. Landfilling is at the bottom of the list of productive uses for land. It drags down its neighbors’ property values. We not only can, but we must, do better.

I do not sit on the Waste Management Committee, but my team has done the yeoman’s work of the committee. We surveyed the community, compiled responses and put together a spending proposal that would direct the funds to meet the needs of our county. Before submitting my proposal, the message from committee chair John Perry was that they were waiting for me to tell them what our research says would be the best use of the funds. After submitting a proposal that reflected the needs and desires found in the survey, the message became that we were overstepping our bounds and had no business telling the county what they should do, but also that it was also not enough. When they’re telling you that you simultaneously did too much and not enough, it is plain that what they really want you to do is nothing.

My proposal included things such as a yard waste drop off, subsidizing recycling services to increase the meager opportunities currently available, education on waste reduction, and much needed funding for the health department; it was deemed “a wish list that will never happen.” Sure, the recycling industry is in flux and the general public still have a lot to learn about proper recycling, but the solution to these problems isn’t to stop recycling and just landfill all of our waste.

If the county board won’t support our version of progress, I say it’s time to hold the landfill’s feet to the fire to follow through on their version of progress. For years, Landfill 33/Sanitation Services has said they were going to build a drop off/self-sort recycling facility imminently. I probably don’t need to tell you that this has yet to happen.

Other communities, larger as well as smaller, make recycling services available to their citizens by requiring trash haulers to offer it. Those governments recognize that you cannot always rely on the free market to meet critical needs. Our community survey found the public understands this, too. Nearly 80% of respondents said it is the responsibility of government and private industry to work together to provide recycling services. Another 13% said it’s solely the government’s responsibility.

Effingham County Board: It is time to do your jobs. Let’s start collecting that tipping fee and setting aside a large chunk of it to fund a drop off facility. And then, let’s go out for bids to find someone willing to meet the needs of county.

We cannot continue to do nothing.

Sarah Ruholl Sehy is the Founder/Chair of Effingham Recycles