Bianca Howard pushes and prods Raleigh to increase its recycling efforts

July 22, 2015
By Bill Krueger

If Bianca Howard had her druthers, Raleigh would be a “pay as you throw” city.

An avid recycler and composter, Howard, 37, says charging more for what we toss in the trash in order to promote increased recycling makes sense to her. But that’s just her personal opinion, she quickly adds.

bianca howardAs the environmental coordinator for the city of Raleigh, Howard oversees a community task force that is considering how to reduce the waste Raleigh sends to the South Wake Landfill. So the 1999 NC State graduate is open to the idea that there might be an even better way to promote recycling in North Carolina’s capital city.

The task force is expected to offer long-term recommendations to the Raleigh City Council by early 2016.

“Some people are doing a great job (with recycling), but there are many other people we need to reach,” says Howard, a Charlotte native who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at State and a master’s in ecology at the University of Florida. She took on her new assignment July 6 after 11 years as community education specialist for Raleigh’s Solid Waste Services Department.

As the public face of the city’s recycling efforts, Howard is often seen on local TV and in YouTube videos preaching the green gospel. So she is able to reel off key numbers with ease:

— For the past couple of years, Raleigh has recycled about 29,000 tons a year, including cardboard, junk mail, plastic bottles, glass jars and metal cans, generating about $500,000 in annual revenue.

— Raleigh residents throw away three times as much as they recycle.

— Roughly two-thirds of what winds up in the landfill, a county audit found, could have been recycled or composted.

The task force — a diverse group of longtime residents and newcomers as well as representatives of business, nonprofits and other community groups — is looking to tip that balance.

“I’m excited about the task force even though I don’t know what they are going to recommend,” says Howard, who has been interested in the environment since seventh grade. “Recycling is a local action with global implications.”

Making sure people understand what belongs in their blue recycling carts has been a big part of her mission, she says. Unacceptable items — “contamination” in solid waste-speak — must be removed by hand, and that costs money.

Reducing contamination is part old-fashioned outreach. But the city also is testing technology that should help, Howard says, disclosing that each of its 100,000+ blue recycling carts is embedded with a Radio Frequency Identification tag, or RFID. That tag can tell the city when your cart is emptied, and the driver can even snap a photo as he wields a mechanical arm to dump its contents into his recycling truck.

“If he sees a bowling ball fly out, he can record that, and we’ll be able to follow up with you,” likely with a reminder about what’s recyclable and what’s not, Howard says. “It’s not about trying to punish you or a way to spy on residents but a way to use our people, our trucks and our fuel more efficiently.”

The data also will help the city target outreach where it is most needed — for example, to neighborhoods where the fewest carts are rolled to the curb on pickup days.

Besides her work with the task force, in her new role Howard looks to expand the number of apartment and condo communities that recycle with the city. More than 400 already do. Others recycle privately, and some don’t recycle at all, she says. One priority: Enlisting low- and moderate-income units managed by the Raleigh Housing Authority; only about half of them recycle now, Howard says.

“That’s unacceptable,” she says, “and it’s a particular interest of mine.”

Another interest is downtown Raleigh, where a thriving entertainment scene and influx of residents have sparked complaints about smells, litter and garbage carts lining the streets. The city is working with the Raleigh Appearance Commission and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to address the issues, Howard says. Among other things, the community task force is considering whether the city should require businesses to recycle.

Will it recommend Raleigh become a “pay as you throw” city like Seattle, Wash., or Portland, Ore., charging more to people who throw more in their garbage can than in the recycling cart?

It’s anybody’s guess, Howard says. Stay tuned.

—Carole Tanzer Miller

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