In a move that lays the groundwork for switching residential trash collection from a weekly to biweekly schedule, the City Council unanimously adopted a bill on Monday that would allow Seattle Public Utilities to renegotiate contracts with waste haulers.
The bill does not put biweekly service into effect. But it will give the council and incoming Mayor Ed Murray a chance to decide by March 1 whether to change the garbage collection schedule. The earliest that biweekly service could occur is April 2015. The service change would only apply to residential customers using garbage cans.
SPU estimates that biweekly pickups could decrease garbage truck traffic, incentivize recycling and composting and save the city between $5 million and $6 million annually.
“This is part of our zero waste initiative that has successfully reduced the amount of waste we send to the landfill by over 30 percent over the last six years,” said Councilmember Richard Conlin, who supports the service change and has been a key figure in reducing waste disposal to landfills. “We have taken a train [carrying garbage to a landfill] that was a mile long that we sent everyday and cut it by a third of a mile.”
The utility pays two solid waste contractors — Waste Management of Washington, Inc. and CleanScapes, Inc. — $70 million a year to pick up garbage, recycling and food and yard waste, according to SPU’s senior planning and development specialist Brett Stav.
If the city switches the pickup schedule, residential rates could drop between 10 and 11 percent, according to a report issued earlier this year on a biweekly garbage pickup pilot program. But customers who switch to larger cans to hold two weeks worth of trash would pay more for less frequent service. The utility estimates that the average rate reduction across all customers — those who do and do not “upsize” their trashcans — will be about 6 percent.
Seattle’s trashcans range from 12 gallons to 96 gallons and differ in price based on volume. During the pilot, SPU tested two sets of rates for the various can sizes. One set had a “steep,” 68 percent price increase between each can size and the other had a “shallow,” 25 percent increase. Under the steep rate structure, the price of a medium-sized 32-gallon was $24.20 per month, while the next-size-bigger 64-gallon can was $40.50 — $16.30 extra. Under the shallow rate scenario, the 32-gallon can was $25.10 and the 64-gallon can was $31.25 — $6.15 more expensive.
“The steep rate structure would likely produce fewer long‐term customer garbage can changes, would maintain some incentive for customers to recycle more, and would provide a larger discount to the 70‐90 percent of customers that might remain on their weekly garbage can size,” SPU’s report on the pilot program said. “Conversely, a shallow rate structure would encourage more garbage can changes, would eliminate most of recycling incentive, and would reduce the bill impact for the 10‐30 percent of customers that increase their can size.”
About 8 percent of participants in the pilot program upsized their trashcan.
Stav emphasized that the rates were not final. “These rates are theoretical,” he wrote in an email, “and probably wouldn’t be adopted exactly if the city decides to implement citywide biweekly garbage collection.”
The current monthly collection fee for a 32 gallon can is $29.80 and the fee for a 64 gallon bin doubles to $59.60. In April 2014, rates will increase between $0.80 and $3.75 per month depending on the can size.
“It's important to remember that collection is only one part of the cost to the utility,” Conlin said during Monday’s meeting. Disposal, landfill contamination cleanup and transfer stations add to the price, he said. Conlin told Crosscut last week that he does not consider the service change a backdoor rate increase.
SPU conducted the pilot program, known as the “One Less Truck Project,” between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2012. It involved 800 single-family households in four neighborhoods. Sixty-three percent of participants were satisfied with the biweekly service, compared to the 89 percent of customers who were satisfied with weekly pickups in a 2011 survey. Dissatisfied pilot participants noticed more pests and rodents, increased garbage odors and simply didn’t like having two weeks of trash on their property.
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