Battle in Seattle

Like Dorothy of Kansas can attest — things are not always as they seem in the Emerald City.

Seattle has long had a reputation of being an eco-minded community. But recently, the city is finding that it's not easy being green. As early as 1998, the Northwest city vowed to conserve resources and set an ambitious goal to recycle 60 percent of its garbage. People might think Seattle's 38 percent recycling rate is nothing to squawk about — it's still higher than the 30 percent national average rate. But for a city that saw its rate reach 40 percent in 2000, declining percentages for the past two years can appear dismal.

Mayor Greg Nickels thinks he has a plan that will come to recycling's rescue. After an almost 5 percent drop in commercial recycling, he recently “reaffirmed Seattle's leadership in recycling” by proposing, among other things, banning yard waste and paper from commercial garbage. In addition to the yard waste bans they already face, residents also would be banned from throwing paper, bottles and cans in the trash. Commercial and multi-family customers who violate the bans would face fines, while single-family residents would just not have their garbage picked up until they remove the offending materials.

With today's economic environment, you might wonder if Nickels' proposal is the best means to reach Seattle's goals. Someone will have to incur the costs to expand recycling. Moreover, will sorting through garbage and fining violators create accounting, much less public relations nightmares?

While these are just a few important questions, it doesn't appear as if the community is asking any. Instead, city council members are letting the legislation languish because they were upset with how the mayor announced his plan. “I think the mayor made a symbolic effort to boost his environmental record … and the council got upset that he rolled-out his plan without consulting them because it makes it look like they don't care about the environment, when they do,” said one Seattleite.

Seattle has led the nation in its progressive recycling efforts, and there are too many other important questions to answer about the mayor's proposal than whether the city council's feathers have been ruffled. What the members really need to address is whether the mayor's plan will work; if the community can afford such a plan; and how to encourage people to throw away less — not more.

One of the reasons the city's recycling rates have decreased is residents are generating more garbage — up from 2.38 pounds per person per day to 2.6 pounds per day in 2001. But if Seattle can find a way to encourage people to generate less waste, it will reach its 60 percent goal and continue to lead the country in solving solid waste issues.

The author is the editor of Waste Age