Recycling in Seattle

The economics of not recycling caught up with Seattle in the late 1980s. They were then faced with a problem that needed to be resolved quickly as local landfills would soon close, the citizens and politicians in the West Coast city determined that quick action was needed.

This led to the start of Seattle’s solid waste diversion recycling collection programs in 1989 - programs that are considered to be some of the most effective in the nation.

To learn more about what Seattle has done and is planning for the future, American Recycler spoke with Chuck Clarke, the director of Seattle Public Utilities.

If a city or county were willing to make the effort and allocate the necessary resources based on best practices from Seattle and other cities, how long would it take to establish an aggressive diversion and recycling program?

Clarke: Seattle increased its recycling diversion by nearly 150 percent within the first five years of instituting its residential curbside recycling program.

Of America’s cities and urban centers with populations of 500,000 plus, how many have matched Seattle’s achievements and what do you believe is preventing those who have not done so, from establishing similar programs?

Clarke: Recycling has been a success story for many American cities, including Portland and San Francisco. They’ve done it by changing the way they think of garbage, not as a necessary evil and municipal revenue source, but literally as a waste on the environment, a waste on their community and a waste of resources.

Participation by the residential and non-residential sectors is essential to the success of recycling and diversion programs. In terms of an education program, what are the necessary elements that a municipality must implement to get both sectors on board?

Clarke: Businesses and residents need clear information on what to recycle, how to recycle, and why recycling is important both economically and environmentally. This information should be presented frequently.

What are the necessary “carrots” that a municipality must employ to get the residents and businesses to actively participate in diversion and recycling programs?

Clarke: Seattle offers a “pay as you throw” garbage can system that serves as a terrific incentive for businesses and residents to recycle. The bigger the can you need for your garbage, the more you pay, which is a simple way to encourage recycling.

For those few who don’t recycle, the city has prohibited recyclables from the garbage. Apartments and businesses face fines if they repeatedly don’t recycle, and households risk not having their garbage picked up if they don’t recycle.

Five years ago, Seattle banned citizens from placing recyclables in their trash. Has this policy been accepted by the majority of people? Is the city still issuing fines for non-compliance?

Clarke: The vast majority of businesses and residents support our recycling ordinance, with more than a 98 percent recycling compliance rate and a 10 percent increase in diversion since the ordinance passed in 2003. Last year, less than 20 fines were levied against apartments and businesses for not recycling.