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City struggles with wasteland of trash cans

City struggles with wasteland of trash cans

30,000 split trash cans were dumped over 5 acres at the City of Visalia’s Water Reclamation Facility west of Highway 198

By Reggie Ellis  @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The City of Visalia has spent the last few months dealing with a heavy bit of irony. What do you do with a trash can once used to hold both recyclables and trash that cannot itself be recycled or trashed? 

The 750-ton answer is a junkyard of trash cans dumped at the western edge of the city. Since March, the city has been discarding its old split-can trash containers just west of Highway 198. There, piled 12 feet high between the city’s massive water recycling facility and rows of pecan trees irrigated with recycled water, lies a 5-acre wasteland of trash cans. The city was only able to convert 10,000 of the 40,000 split cans in use by residents to single use cans during its shift to a three separate cans for refuse, recycling and green waste last spring. The remaining 30,000 could not be converted to single use and were taken to an open field at the Water Reclamation Facility until they could be sold to recyclers. 

As the final step in the city’s conversion to the three-can system, the city issued a request for proposal (RFP) to over 75 recycling companies in North America to reuse or recycle the decommissioned trash cans. None of them submitted a bid to recycle the cans and only one bid was submitted to haul the cans to a landfill for a cost of $630 per ton, or $472,500.

Due to the high cost of the bid, Public Works Manager Jim Ross recommended the council reject the bid and hold onto the trash cans until they can be recycled or removed from the site. 

Councilmember Greg Collins pulled the item from the consent calendar concerned the city had not done enough to recycle the plastic from the 96-gallon containers. 

“There’s no market for ground up plastic?,” Collins asked. “There’s got to be somewhere we can market that material?”

Public works manager Jim Ross shared the councilman’s frustration. Ross said Public Works reached out to other cities to take the containers, provided samples to potential recyclers, consulted with state recycling officials, hosted site visits with recycling firms and even tried giving them away, but no was interested. 

“We’ve looked everywhere we can think of,” Ross said. 

Ross said the problem is a combination of the material of which they are made and the void left in the global recycling market. Like most plastics, the trash cans are made from polyethylene. The material is recyclable but only when it is separated into high- and medium-density versions. 

The City of Visalia dumped 30,000 of its old, split trash cans on this 5-acre site on the eastern edge of its Water Reclamation Facility. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

The can is a blend of the two, making it difficult to breakdown as the two have different melting temperatures. Even if it was usable, there is no one to take the material. Ross said China decided to begin limiting its purchase of other country’s recycled material in 2018, leaving cities without the world’s largest and most consistent buyer of recyclables. 

“China essentially closed the market down,” Ross said. “Other Asian countries are taking more but these things take time. There may even be some domestic markets that pop up over time, but nothing is going to happen overnight.”

Ross said the city can’t even give them away as is because few cities use a split-can system and those that do are considering a similar move away from them. “They are better off buying a new can,” Ross told the council. 

Harold Myers disagreed saying the city could use the split cans as replacements for broken cans within the city. He argued that whether a can had one lid or two, they could still be filled with the type of trash, either both recyclable or both refuse, and dumped into a single use garbage truck. He said the city has budgeted $400,000 per year for can replacements and that within two years of reusing the cans the city could save $1 million, which would more than cover the cost overruns associated with the conversion. 

“There is no cost to the cans staying and no immediate need has been brought forward by staff for them to be removed,” Myers said.

Ross said there is an immediate need as the city needs to break down the cans into chunks so they do not capture water during the winter. If the 96-gallon trash cans are left out over the rainy season they will collect standing water and become a massive breeding ground for mosquitoes, which could become a major public health hazard.

Myers noted that the city’s $340,000 proposal for disposal of the cans was in addition to the $1 million approved by the council in July to purchase 4,540 new trash cans to complete the conversion to the three-can system after city staff had underestimated the number of cans needed. Myers called for the city manager to investigate the cost overruns associated with the project. 

Ross said despite the change orders and additional costs, the project is not that much higher than the 2016 estimate of $5.4 million for the conversion especially factoring in inflation. To date, Ross said the city has spent a total of $6.1 million including the $340,000 the city added to the Sold Waste Fund for the grinding and eventual disposal of the cans. 

The council voted unanimously to reject the bids from Housley Demolition Company, Inc. to take the cans and truck them to the landfill and enter into an agreement with Bejac Construction to rent an industrial grinder for three months for a total of $120,000.  

Ross said the city will find a contractor to begin grinding down the cans by mid- to late November. Once the cans are broken down, the city will continue its search for someone to recycle the material or at least haul it away. 

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