RURAL AREAS FACE UNIQUE CHALLENGES when managing solid waste. Faced with all-too-easy illegal options such as burning and dumping, a lack of solid waste expertise and occasional political opposition, expanding solid waste services to include more than residential collection can be a daunting undertaking for rural communities. Yet, once established, strategically located convenience centers have been shown to successfully capture solid waste in rural areas that otherwise would be illegally dumped or improperly stored.

Convenience centers — collection facilities that are fenced and staffed — often complement rural “mailbox collection” by targeting special wastes not picked up by waste haulers. Like a wheel with a hub, convenience center materials funnel through a central recycling center/transfer station where they are processed, compacted, consolidated and transported. Today, the centers are expanding operations to include recyclables and special wastes, such as tires, electronics and household hazardous waste. In sparsely populated rural areas, convenience centers even can provide household trash services where mailbox trash pickup is not feasible.

The centers provide an excellent collection method for recovering tons of solid waste, and are much less expensive than cleaning up illegal dumps. Other less obvious benefits to a community include quality of life issues, as well as the effect on local tourism. In many rural areas, dollars spent by travelers can be a community's life-blood. Visitors are unlikely to stop in towns with unmanaged solid waste that has been dumped or discarded in neighborhoods and backyards. Businesses also are less likely to establish locations in unattractive communities.

But unless residents accept convenience centers, the benefits never will be seen. Careful planning and working with local organizations can help gain acceptance by small rural communities where residents might be resistant to change. Consider a community, for instance, where the central staging area, which includes the transfer station and recycling center, is 20 to 30 miles from the target area for a new convenience center location. Think, plan, research, talk and start making inroads gently. Go to the community pie supper or get to know the rural fire department personnel by attending their fundraiser. Consider taking your roll-off containers to a community central location for a special waste collection event.

In addition to community acceptance, operating efficiently is an issue. In many states, convenience centers likely are owned by county governments. In Arkansas, for instance, county government is charged with the unfunded mandate to “provide for the health and welfare of its citizens, including the proper management and disposal of solid waste.” To counter that unfunded mandate, Arkansas has a long-established Recycling Grants program that provides funding for capital expenditures. Government is eligible for other grant money not available to private enterprise, especially in economically depressed rural areas. Operation and hauling services can be provided by the private or public sector, but ownership must be maintained by local governments.

Government programs may operate at a loss to provide for the welfare of its residents, but often solid waste services — such as a convenience center with a net loss — can be subsidized with revenues generated from other department operations. It's no surprise that labor and transportation are the biggest expenses in the equation. For a convenience center, most revenues are generated from tipping fees on Class 1 and Class 4 solid waste. Additional revenue, however, can come from appliance tipping fees and the sale of recycling bags for mixed containers, mixed paper, newspaper and clothes. Revenues also can come from reuse sales and the sale of scrap steel.

In fact, with the increase in steel prices during the last two years, collection of steel at convenience centers can help pay for operating expenses. Scrap steel — often referred to as tin — consistently comprises more than 30 percent of total materials recovered in rural recycling drop-off centers. As land values increase, landowners are cleaning up old dumps and bringing in tons of steel for recycling. Given the amount of steel accumulated on farms from generations of families, it should be one of the first materials targeted by rural centers.

Where steel previously was shipped to intermediate processors at breakeven prices or a loss, today steel is a revenue generator. Current indicators are that China's economic growth will continue to fuel the trend of higher steel prices. Steel also can help improve recycling numbers.

The “easy” tons of solid waste in the country primarily are being recovered in urban areas where collection infrastructure has been long-established. In many rural areas, however, traditions of dumping and burning still continue. Education is important, and enforcement is needed, but to bring about significant changes in solid waste habits, services must be expanded. Convenience centers are one part of the equation. By taking a variety of items in one easy-to-use, drop-off location, communities can encourage residents to do the right thing when it comes to solid waste.
Larry Karigan-Winter
Director, Solid Waste and Recycling
Madison County, Ark.