Seattle's Soul Searches for Waste Reduction

Take hundreds of diverse, independent businesspeople, mix in 500 local residents, place them into 15 retail and residential buildings spread across a 9-acre historical district, add in 9 million visitors a year, and what do you get? “The soul of the city,” according to Seattle's Mayor Paul Schell.

Ask Pike Place Market Facilities Supervisor Jeff Jarvis, however, and you might hear a different answer: a solid waste challenge unlike any other in the city.

Operating since 1907, the Pike Place Market offers everything from fresh produce, flowers and seafood to a range of services including a medical clinic.

Jarvis works for the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), which is the landlord and manager for 80 percent of the historical district properties. A PDA Council and the Pike Place Market Historical Commission (an arm of the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods) oversees PDA staff activities. All changes in using or designing the Market's space, including siting recycling containers, must follow city guidelines, and be approved by the Commission.

Given this complex environment, Jarvis is proud of the PDA's solid waste accomplishments. “When I first started working here 15 years ago, we only were recycling cardboard. Today, we're recycling or composting nearly 1,300 tons of glass, aluminum, tin, paper, plastic, produce and flower scraps, and kitchen grease. That's 38 percent of our annual waste stream.”

According to Jarvis, recycling at the market picked up a decade ago when the city set up voluntary recycling programs instead of building a waste incinerator. This prompted the PDA to consider ways to reduce its waste.

Since that time, the market has been recognized locally for its recycling and conservation efforts.

In January 2001, the Mayor honored the market for “its progressive attitude toward reducing and recycling waste, and conserving our precious natural resources.”

Achieving a high recycling rate did not come without challenges, however. Jarvis says language and cultural barriers, finding space for recycling containers, and increasing the merchant's recycling participation can be difficult. As a result, the PDA is including translation at merchant meetings and is searching for a location for additional recycling containers.

The PDA also is working with vendors to help them find ways to reduce their waste, by, for example, getting their suppliers to take back items such as pallets. Merchants may also create a purchasing cooperative to buy in bulk, which would reduce packaging material. Additionally, the PDA is considering requiring farmers to haul their scrap produce back to their farms for disposal.

Encouraging merchants to participate at all is a problem, too. Working with independent businesspeople, Jarvis has learned that, “there needs to be different approaches for different people. Some are driven by altruism; others will participate only when it will save them money. Still others require both.”

But reducing incoming packaging has the merchants paying attention. Less packaging means more room for both merchants and their customers to move, and consequently, this creates a more attractive shopping environment.

Having experienced successes and challenges, Jarvis takes a realistic approach to his work. “We're continually refining what we do, but we don't seek perfection. If we achieved perfection, it would be a dull place.”