The Biggest Reuser

Recycling contest helps raise awareness.

In May, six Renton, Wash., households participated in the Recycle More Neighborhood Challenge, held by the Solid Waste Division of King County (Wash.) as part of its “Recycle More. It's Easy To Do,” campaign. The three-year program, launched in 2006, is an effort to improve the recycling habits of the county's residents and businesses, helping the county reach its goal of zero waste by 2030.

Although nearby Seattle has made residential recycling mandatory, King County, maintains a voluntary program. Moreover, while 90 percent of King County residents participate in the curbside program, more than half of the waste taken to the county's Cedar Hills Regional Landfill is recyclable, says Sharon Aller, a project manager for the Recycle More campaign.

“We decided about two years ago that what we really needed to do was have a strong Recycle More campaign,” says Aller. “We were willing to put the money into television ads, media, a little contest — anything we can do to attract people's attention.”

Waste officials estimate that the average King County residence generates 17.5 pounds of garbage a day, or a half ton annually. They developed the Neighborhood Challenge, to help six families — the Gesells, the Nichols, the Gallaghers, the Rubinos, the Collons and the Kawamotos — reduce their waste. “We wanted to challenge them to see how much they could reduce their garbage,” Aller says. “But, we didn't tell them how.”

Instead, each family received a quick lesson on what items can be collected for recycling and were then left to determine how to best implement recycling in their homes. Beginning on May 28, each family hauled their garbage to the street for their “Biggest Loser”-style benchmark weigh-in. Tom Watson, a county EcoConsumer, who also has been referred to as a “garbologist,” sifted through the contestants' trash. He found mostly food scraps, plastic and paper. Combined, the families produced 146 pounds of garbage. Clearly, there was plenty of room for improvement.

Each Thursday for four weeks, Watson returned to the neighborhood for a weigh-in to determine the participants' progress. The final weigh-in was held June 26, with the Gallagher family taking the top spot, reducing their waste from 16.8 pounds to a scant two pounds, a total reduction of 82 percent. Combined, the participants reduced their garbage to 50.8 pounds.

For their efforts, the Gallaghers will receive a $100 gift certificate, an eco-friendly coupon book, and a recycling makeover for their home.

“All of the participants did an amazing job at increasing their recycling rates and reducing their garbage,” said Kevin Kiernan, director of the King County Solid Waste Division, in a press release. “If they adopted this as a lifestyle, in one year alone, these six neighbors could reduce their trash output by nearly 3,800 pounds. That is a big savings to the environment.”