Seattle's Decision

Seattle, Long Known as the capital of Ecotopia, that fabled stretch of the Pacific Northwest where it's easy being green — has a problem. It seems that reaching its 60 percent recycling goal isn't as easy as it thought. The Emerald City has always been a hotbed of pro-recycling sentiment. Blessed with extensive local and export markets and an eco-friendly population, Seattle has evolved from a thriving system of drop-off and buyback centers into its pioneering curbside program. Seattle also was one of the first cities to use pay-as-you-throw rate systems to encourage recycling and waste reduction.

Justifiably proud of their recycling achievements, city council members set a 60 percent goal for 2008. In 1998, when they set the goal, it didn't look that hard. After all, the city had reached a 44 percent rate in 1995. Unfortunately, instead of increasing, recycling has receded ever so slightly. By 2001, the recycling rate had fallen to 40 percent.

What happened? Residential recycling rates stayed consistent at about 50 percent for single-family households. That is almost twice as high as the recycling rate for multi-family housing. Yet recycling officials say the problem is found in the commercial sector where the recycling rate fell by one-fourth.

How will Seattle solve this problem? City officials decided that relying on the carrot wasn't good enough anymore. Now it's time for the stick. If the city council agrees, paper will be banned from commercial waste, and recyclables will be banned from residential waste. Don't expect your trash to be collected if you fail to separate your recyclables. While they're at it, city council members will add some new programs, with an emphasis on voluntary food waste collection and composting. And oh yes, the new programs will only cost an extra million per year. It's a good thing the economy is so strong.

Maybe I shouldn't sound so harsh, but Seattleites don't realize how good they have it. Most other cities would be overjoyed to have a 40 percent recycling rate. In fact, most cities would be delighted if their biggest problem were getting more than 40 percent instead of getting to 40 percent. Seattle could have it worse. Kansas City still doesn't have a curbside program. New York City has dropped glass and plastic. Buffalo has a single digit recycling rate.

The real issues for Seattle are simple: How much is the city willing to pay to increase its recycling rate, and is a 50 percent increase in a five-year period worth $5 million?

The economic problem was defined in a recent report by Stewardship Ontario, a group responsible for overseeing the province's blue-box recycling program. According to the report, per ton recycling costs increase as programs try to capture less commonly recycled materials. I suspect the same applies to expanding programs in more “resistant” areas, such as apartments and businesses.

Perhaps what this is all about is limits. Getting to 60 percent may only cost a million more per year, but when does the additional cost exceed the additional benefit, even in the most optimistic cost-benefit analysis? That's a political decision for Seattle. Maybe the extra cost is worthwhile. But as they eventually will discover, not even Congress can repeal the law of diminishing returns.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected]