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.

Seattle, Washington is currently focused on achieving a 70 percent diversion rate.

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 carts.”

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 and e-waste.

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 Sidles.

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 rate.

“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 bill.

“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 market.”

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 bi-monthly invoices.”

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 about recycling.”

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 of recycling.”

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.