July 23, 2010

Transfer station: Turning Trash to Treasure for Town

Recycling Director Joanie Cornetta has a passion for trash.
Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – In a down economy, municipal budgets suffer, too. So when the town asked its department heads to find more streams of revenue two years ago, Joanie Cornetta knew what to do.

She convinced Public Works Director Mike Fowler that working out a way to allow Hampstead residents to bring their bulky recyclables to Derry's transfer station would be a win-win situation for all.

That deal, a pilot program officially launched this week, might only mean $5,000 annually in additional revenue based on the town's modest dumping fees. But the real gold mine, says Cornetta, is in the cash value of trash-related commodities – copper wire from stripped down power cords, scrap metal wrestled from appliances, mass quantities of cardboard and newspaper sold to the highest bidder, all “free money,” as Cornetta calls it.

As long as the addition of Hampstead customers doesn't interfere with the ebb and flow of Derry residents to the transfer station, Cornetta will continue to reach for the next rung on the ladder of recycling success.

“I'd love to regionalize. That's me; I have to keep going for a goal,” says Cornetta, who is also looking to beat last year's recycling quota – she recycled 37 percent of all trash that came into the dump, which more than paid for itself. She earned $447,471 in revenue for the town from selling cardboard, newspaper, scrap metal and construction debris, exceeding budget projections by about $150,000.

“And that's in an economic downturn,” says Cornetta. “I will recover revenue anyway I can. I don't know why other towns don't put more effort into recycling.”

Could be that towns without a Joanie Cornetta leading the charge can't figure out how to maximize on profits from recycling commodities. In general, the national economic downturn affected recycling revenues on a national scale, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization.

In 2009 the recycling industry as a whole lost $30 million in revenues, as the value of recyclables – paper, cardboard, copper, iron – plunged.

Another factor is manpower, which is needed to physically sort through tons of trash in order to weed out the scraps of recyclable “gold.”

Cornetta said with five full timers and two part timers – one that works 28 hours and one, at the entrance, who works 20 hours – she is also short on hired hands.

“My staff is down. I could use another full-time laborer just to monitor what's coming in,” says Cornetta. “But we make it work.”

Her overarching vision includes a million-dollar state of the art recycling center – she already knows where it will be located, just beyond the view from her office window. It would streamline the recycling process, provide enough space to store recyclable material, allow Derry to perhaps extend recycling contracts with other, smaller towns beyond Hampstead, providing even more revenue.

Truly a matter of trash turned to treasure.

Although it has been discussed at the last few budget sessions, and such an expense was included in the 2012 Capital Improvement Plan, it's not likely to happen anytime soon, not in this economy. Still, Cornetta would like to think that with the current push toward green practices, and various sources of government incentives for municipal “greening” available, the town might get behind her on this one, and find a way to make her recycling empire dream a reality.

Speaking of reality, Cornetta returns to the here and now. She is policing the newly started compost pile after it recently created a figurative stink. To make a point, she hops in her Honda Ridgeline truck and drives over to the composting heap.

“This yard waste costs us nothing. Residents can dump it here for free, and pick up compost to use, also free. But we ended up with a bad batch – people were dumping all kinds of things in there with the leaf and lawn clippings. Flower pots, plastic bags. We even had the rear end of a car hidden in there by someone. By the time it all got chipped up, it was ruined. I felt bad, we had a farmer who came and got some and spread it on his field, which of course was terrible for him,” Cornetta says.

At that point, she was left with a big pile of useless compost. She couldn't give it away. So she paid someone to get rid of it. What's left right now is the beginning of a new compost pile. Already, Cornetta is frustrated by what she sees sticking out from what should be nothing but organic compostables.

“Look, there's a bottle, and some branches. Look at all the plastic bags,” she says, reaching into the leafy, grassy mound for the black plastic intruder. “We need a better sign, for sure,” she says, pointing to a primitively spray-painted sign inside the entrance, directing residents to empty bags rather than dumping them intact. Next to it are items someone's picked from the compost – a spent bottle of weed killer, a few beer bottles, a whole trashcan full of empty plastic bags.

“This facility belongs to the people. It's theirs. I'm doing my best to turn it into revenue for the town. When it comes to the compost, they can either keep it clean, or else it won't be available for free anymore,” says Cornetta. “I will have to start charging for it, and I definitely don't want to add more fees. If we can keep it clean, it could actually be another money maker for the town.”

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