Seattle Imposes Stricter Mandate for Recycling

Published May 1, 2008

The City of Seattle has announced a new program requiring residents to increase recycling of food scraps, plastics, and other materials not currently covered in the city’s recycling mandate.

The new plan will create a significant increase in garbage pickup prices.

“More than half of Seattle’s garbage that now goes to landfills can be recycled or composted,” said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D) in a February 21 press statement. “These new programs will make it much easier and more convenient for people to waste less and recycle more. That’s good for Seattle and the planet.”

New Rate Hike

Seattle currently charges $17.65 a month per residence and distributes a 32-gallon recycling container. The city also charges each residence $5.30 per month for removal of yard waste. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported a rate increase of “over 10 percent” was expected to be approved in order to cover the new program.

By way of comparison, pickup for a 32-gallon container in Spokane is $15.34 per month.

The plan would not take effect until April 2009, when new waste management contracts go into effect.

Adequate Landfill Space

According to Timothy Croll, Seattle’s solid waste director, the goal of the program is to improve overall sustainability, as reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on February 20. The new program was not prompted by concerns about space availability at landfills, he added.

Seattle currently requires residents to recycle certain materials, including paper and some types of plastic. If either the trash collector or a City of Seattle inspector believes more than 10 percent of the content of a trash bin is recyclable, they can flag the can and refuse to pick up the trash.

The collector or inspector leaves a note asking the resident to remove the recyclables, and if the situation is corrected the trash will be picked up the following week.

Croll said at this point the new program on recycling food scraps would not be mandatory but the City Council could make changes to the program in the future.

History of Failed Promises

No analysis has been done to see if the environmental benefits of the new recycling program would be greater than their costs.

Seattle has had a mixed record at best of receiving environmental benefits from government mandates and projects that increased costs in an effort to reduce the city’s environmental footprint.

Among notable examples is the new Seattle City Hall, which was designed using “green” building standards in an effort to reduce energy use. When the building opened, the city found it actually used more energy than the old building, which was less modern and larger than the current structure.

Diminishing Returns

“Recycling is important; in fact, it’s crucial,” said Michael Munger, chair of the political science department at Duke University. “We all recycle, every day. But it is important not to fall into the trap of thinking of recycling as a moral imperative.”

Munger, who has written extensively on recycling economics, notes spending too much on recycling in a world of scarce resources can cause people to miss other economic opportunities. As the target for trash reduction increases, it becomes increasingly expensive, comparatively, to recycle and reuse each additional bit.

Asked about Seattle’s goal of reducing trash by 60 percent, Munger said, “The real problem is that technologies change, and the cost of energy and raw materials varies all the time. If your attempts to recycle use more resources than throwing the item away, then you are not being a good steward of the environment.”

Todd Myers ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Environmental Policy at the Washington Policy Center.