Recycling at ApartmentsMay be in the Bag by '08

RECYCLING HAS BEEN SLOW to catch on in apartments and other multi-unit dwellings, and this has caused cities hungry for high diversion rates to resort to resolute tactics. When recycling at apartment buildings became a challenge in Seattle, a city typically known for its high diversion, waste officials stepped up to the plate.

“The overall recycling rate in Seattle had been up to 43 percent, but now it's down to 39 percent,” says Ginny Stevenson of the Solid Waste Contracts division of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). Stevenson adds that multi-unit recycling is at 22 percent, and the city has set a goal to raise the rate to 37 percent by 2008. According to Stevenson, Seattle could achieve the increase if each apartment tenant recycled 2 pounds per month. “When we talk to building managers and pitch it in this way, they say, ‘that's pretty reasonable,’” she says.

To reach the baby step of 2 pounds per person per month, SPU mailed approximately 84,000 blue tote-sized bags to apartment dwellers. Stevenson says the biggest obstacle for recycling has been getting the recyclables from apartment units to the building's main recycling bins.

“If [residents] have no way to get recyclables to the main area, it's a lost effort,” she says. The bags are intended to help residents store, collect, sort and transport the commingled stream. Glass is the only material not included in the city's single-stream recycling program. Recycling in Seattle is free, and Stevenson says 83 percent of all multi-family homes already are signed up for recycling.

SPU is hoping the bags will simplify a system that may have become more complicated through the years than it was meant to be. A study of the waste stream in 2002 revealed that 24 percent of Seattle's landfill-bound trash is recyclable paper. “It's the one commodity we've forgotten to emphasize,” Stevenson says. “We've forgotten about what we started with — the basics: office paper, newspaper, junk mail.”

The lapse in recycling at apartments, Stevenson says, can be attributed to not seeing the savings. Building managers are given 32- or 20-gallon containers for waste, and if residences can place their waste into the smaller 20-gallon container, the garbage bill decreases. But when apartment and condominium residents don't see the garbage bill, they don't see the incentive to recycle, she explains.

The new tote bags mark SPU's second attempt to incite recycling among multi-family units. The utility tinkered with a precycler a few years ago, but found the 12- to 14-gallon bins were too heavy and cumbersome for residents to carry down stairs. But SPU has its fingers crossed that the secret to recycling is in the bag. The totes have been used successfully in Kirkland, Wash., and in Vancouver, Canada.

“The bags have been delivered, and so far,” Stevenson says, “we like what we're hearing back.” The city will conduct a study of the waste stream from multi-unit residences later this year.