Seattle stands strong on recycling
The City of Seattle is very close to achieving its 60
percent waste target by 2012 and is looking to achieve
a 70 percent diversion rate by 2025. The success of the
program is based on a combination of state and municipal
legislation, public education and an environmental awareness
by the city’s 530,000 people.
The 60 percent diversion rate goal was established in
1988 and the city’s curbside recycling program began
one year later. Prior to that, there were some private
recycling programs in place.
The desire to divert solid waste was the result of the
closure of in-town landfills in the late 1980s.
“All the local options to divert our garbage collection
to other landfills were really expensive,” says Brett
Stav, senior planning and development for the Seattle
Public Utilities. “We ended up doing a long-haul contract
to Arlington, Oregon (a landfill operated by Waste Management),
which is 200 miles away and in the process of deciding
that, the community and local officials made recycling
diversion a priority.”
State legislation does not give local governments the
authority to regulate commercial recycling.
“For the most part,” says George Sidles, business area
manager for Recycling and Solid Waste Collection, Processing
and Disposal, “we’ve had to rely on the economics of
scale because we provide exclusive residential recycling
services. Initially, we let the private sector handle
the commercial sector and a lot of businesses began voluntary
recycling programs. Over time, we created a small-scale
commercial recycling program that was open to small businesses.
“In the last big range of program updates in November
2003,” he adds, “we made that same service available
to any commercial recyclers with the 60 percent program.
It’s a small-scale program, with two 96-gallon recycling
Currently, the residential diversion rate is 55 percent,
with the commercial rate at 53 percent. The recycling
program focus on paper, cardboard, metals, yard waste,
container glass and plastics.
Household hazardous waste is also targeted via a drop-off
program where residents can bring materials that will
either be recycled or disposed of properly. These materials
include paint, chemicals, batteries, medical supplies
The majority of Seattle’s residential solid waste and
recycling collection – solid waste once a week and recycling
every two weeks, is done through private contractors.
“The city operates two transfer waste transfer stations
for the solid waste and the contractors also transfer
a portion of our organics and green waste,” says Sidles.
“About 30 percent of our transfer system is operated
by the private sector.”
The current system has Waste Management (WM) and Allied
Disposal (AD) collect solid waste, recyclables and yard
waste, with AD processing the recyclables. Cedar Groves
Composting processes the organics via composting.
Sidles says the city is looking at the possibility of
bringing in technology to derive solid fuels, gases and
water from the organics.
“There are some interesting things coming down the pipe
with anaerobic digestion and other technologies,” he
says. “We are not there yet.”
In 2009, the system will have WM and CleanScapes, a local
start-up company (See “A Closer Look”, page 14), handle
the collection aspect, with Allied Disposal continuing
to process the recyclables and Cedar Groves responsible
for the organics.
“Competition in the market place is a good thing,” says
Collected recyclables are sold by the processor. The
contract with the city does not allow recyclables to
be landfilled, but it does allow material that should
not have been included in recycling to be landfilled
— a cost that Seattle covers. The city periodically surveys
the recyclables stream to determine the contamination
“Our contamination rate is about 2 percent and on the
other end is the residuals, the material that the processor
cannot market – about 5 percent” says Sidles. “The processor
pays those landfill costs.”
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels often points out to his citizens
how much their recycling efforts save the city money.
Solid waste and recycling collection comes under one
“Since 1994, we had only one 6 percent solid waste collection
increase,” says Stav. “We are planning a rate increase
with the new collection changes in 2009. The increasing
price of oil is a factor, but the amount people have
recycled has managed to keep costs down overall. It has
been very beneficial for them in the long term, economically
and environmentally. Inflation has caught up with the
The city’s ongoing recycling education campaign has been
a success and it’s a program that translates into the
investment of time and money.
“Seattle is a leader in recycling, along with San Francisco,
California and Portland, Oregon,” says Stav. “We continually
educate our residents. They get communications from us
at least five times per year. We send them a collection
calendar every year and four newsletters, as well as
There is also a staff member who can be contacted by
phone or e-mail, whose job is to provide information
about recycling to residents.
As well, an advisory board made up of citizens provides
input to the city on its solid waste policy. These communication
channels have led to policy changes.
“We got some good feedback about co-mingling glass with
the rest of our recyclables,” says Stav. “Our customers
were very favorable about the amount of time that would
save them and it had a significant role in the decision
to make that change. We also got some feedback expressing
a lot of interest in electronics collection and the mayor
is going to be requesting that service as part of the
new package of services moving forward in the next year.”
Cardboard and yard waste is banned from commercial garbage.
Sidles says that the commercial sector is making efforts
to improve recycling.
“Many of them have taken that law and run with it, setting
up recycling programs for their businesses,” he says.
“A lot of the emphasis on the recycling ethic has been
targeting the residents and as they go to work, they
influence their work place.”
The city has a recycling-on-the-go program for aluminum
cans and bottles, which has bins placed along sidewalks,
and it recently started a pilot project to place recycling
bins in parks and sports fields.
The city also encourages recycling by setting a good
example. “All the city departments are required to recycle
and we also have a Paper Cut initiative where all departments
have been mandated to cut back their paper usage by 30
percent,” says Stav. “Since the mandate came out in 2005,
departments have cut back paper usage by 20 percent.
It saves us a lot of money and it really sets an example
for other businesses and residents to show that they
could do it as well.”
Back in 2004, city regulations forbid the placing of
all recyclables in solid waste for the residential sectors.
This includes apartment buildings and condominium complexes.
“They are treated the same as residences,” says Stav.
“They receive all the educational material that we send
to households. We also have the Friends of Recycling
program where we provide a financial incentive to apartment
property managers to participate in educating their tenants
The program provides a one-time discount of $100 on an
apartment building garbage bill.
For the moment, the city is concentrating upon reaching
the 70 percent diversion rate, but it does have plans
to find ways to use the remainder of the waste stream
as a resource.
Los Angeles County is developing a program to convert
solid waste into energy and other chemical products and
is sharing the results of its legislative process, studies
and tendering with other cities and levels of government.
As mentioned, residential recyclables are collected every
two weeks. This has been the case for the past 20 years.
Residents have not opposed this system.
“The only opposition was that we would change the system
a little bit – down from a 3-cart to a 1-cart system,”
says Stav, “and every once in awhile, we had a contract
change and they would change the collection day, but
in terms of the overall system and the concept of recycling,
the citizens have been behind us 100 percent.”
Next spring, residents will be allowed to include meat
and dairy products to the food waste that they put out.
As well, compost collections will be done on a weekly
basis. Residents will also be allowed to place glass
in their 64-gallon wheeled recycling containers. Glass
is currently placed in a separate container.
Economics, says Sidles, plays a critical role on how
quickly a city or town can establish a successful recycling
program with a high diversion rate. Other factors, he
says, include whether the jurisdiction has contractors
or runs the service in-house, the types of recyclables
being collected and the proximity to markets and how
the necessary funds would be collected from the residents.
“Economics aside,” says Stav, “the keys to successful
recycling would be providing a convenient system that
businesses and citizens can take part in, continually
providing clear education on how to recycle and the benefits
Many cities have contacted Seattle for information on
its diversion and recycling programs, but the city is
also taking notice of best practices in other jurisdictions.
Seattle shares its experiences in terms of legislation,
recycling techniques, public education programs and other
aspects of the programs.