Most of the solid waste produced by Ann Arbor households is now recycled-but businesses still landfill 80 percent of their trash.

The city doesn’t have much leverage to change businesses’ practices, because its free trash pickup covers only the downtown area—everywhere else, commercial clients have to pay either the city or a private waste hauler. So it was a real challenge when city council told the solid waste staff to find a way to boost commercial recycling—without imposing any new taxes or fees.

Their proposed solution: leave collection to the private haulers—but make them contract with the city instead of individual businesses. They’ve requested proposals from two commercial haulers for a single citywide trash contract. The winning firm would get a monopoly on private trash collection. In exchange, the city would collect an annual fee—and the rates customers pay would be structured to encourage recycling.

“The ideological reality is that most businesses need economic incentive to recycle,” explains solid waste coordinator Bryan Weinert. With competing firms “hopscotching all over the city” to serve scattered clients, “it’s kind of the Wild West in some ways right now,” Weinert says. “Doesn’t it make sense intuitively that it would be far more cost effective and efficient to provide a single hauler to provide pickup to all of those locations?”

“It could be a good thing in that the city could use its buying power to leverage lower pricing and get better customer service than the city itself is able to provide,” replies First Martin manager John Teeter. But then Teeter adds a caveat: “It could be a bad thing if it’s poorly run, poorly executed, and the city is just using it as a revenue generator for something else.”

The franchise fee alone could bring in several hundred thousand dollars a year. Weinert says that money would go to support recycling efforts. But the real gain, he says, is that the fees companies pay would encourage recycling—for instance, by offering discounts if companies can get by with a smaller Dumpster, or with fewer trash pickups per week. The principle, Weinert says, is that “your tax dollars have got you covered for recycling—but if you want to throw it away, there’s a cost. That seems fair to me.”

Some property managers, though, are skeptical. “I like to pick and choose [a hauler], because you can get more control,” says Jerry Moyer, property manager for 101 North Main. “I don’t want to have another layer where I would have to call the city who would call the vendor,” concurs First Martin’s John Teeter. “If there’s a problem and you call the city, someone eventually gets back to you,” Teeter adds. “My private hauler will respond on that same day.”

And while Teeter supports recycling in theory, he doesn’t want to end up paying more for trash hauling in order to support it. “Efficiency, level of service, and cost are more important to me than someone who is approaching this as ‘We need more recycling—recycling is good no matter what the cost,'” he says.

Still, Teeter agreed to serve on a committee reviewing the proposals submitted by haulers Waste Management and Allied Waste. “We’re participating,” he says. “I remain cautiously optimistic.” The group was still working in October, but was leaning toward Waste Management. Even after the city’s fee and other costs, Weinert estimates, its prices could save the average business 10-12 percent on disposal costs.

Weinert stresses that the staff can only propose policy—not create it. “Ultimately,” he says, “this is a political decision.” Even if city council acts before year-end, the franchise wouldn’t begin until next July—and full implementation would take another couple of years.