Biweekly Seattle trash pick ups: A stinker?

The changeover from once-a-week service could save Seattle Public Utilities money and cut down on garbage truck traffic. Some customers aren't so sure.
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The changeover from once-a-week service could save Seattle Public Utilities money and cut down on garbage truck traffic. Some customers aren't so sure.

Garbage pick-ups in Seattle could change from weekly to biweekly if the Seattle City Council approves a plan discussed in a committee meeting on Tuesday morning.

The Libraries, Utilities and Seattle Center Committee is considering a bill that would allow Seattle Public Utilities' (SPU) director to change agreements with the companies that collect garbage in Seattle, giving them an option to pick up trash every other week. Two contractors — Waste Management of Washington, Inc. and CleanScapes, Inc. — currently collect garbage every week. At Tuesday's meeting, SPU staff members presented findings from a biweekly garbage collection pilot program conducted last year in Seattle's Wedgwood, Leschi, Dunlap and Highland Park neighborhoods. 

Over 60 percent of the pilot’s participants were satisfied with their service, but lower-income and minority customers and households with diapers were more inclined to say that the less frequent pick ups stink. Increases in bad odors and rodent sightings were among the reasons customers said they were dissatisfied.

The service cuts would save SPU about $5 to $6 million annually and, according to SPU officials, reduce garbage truck traffic and incentivize recycling and composting. Garbage collection bills should go down for most customers if the council approves the new collection regimen, but households that need to upsize their trashcans to hold two weeks of waste would pay more.

“We’re certainly not the first ones to do this,” said Tim Croll, SPU’s director of solid waste. “The downside, you know, is everyone is kind of used to how the garbage is done, so there’s the potential for customer opposition and unintended consequences.”

Croll said SPU was brainstorming about how to help diaper-using households if the service reduction occurs. Among the options discussed was a premium once-a-week pickup service, and distributing coupons for cloth diaper laundering.

Croll mentioned Renton and Olympia as examples of other cities with bi-weekly pickups. 

Of the 800 people who participated in the 6-month biweekly pickup pilot program, 63 percent said they were satisfied with the reduced service and 33 percent were dissatisfied. By comparison, SPU surveys show that about 89 percent of households with weekly garbage pickups are satisfied with their service.

Biweekly pick ups should reduce garbage truck traffic by an estimated 25 percent, resulting in a 15 percent drop in trash hauling emissions, according to SPU. The utility also estimates that the service change will encourage Seattleites to use their recycling and composting bins, lessening the amount of waste put into trashcans by 9,000 tons annually.

As for how the changes will affect monthly garbage bills, Croll said in an email: "The average single family customer (that is an average of the can upsizers and the can-keepers) could see a 6 percent reduction. Can upsizers would see a cost increase from their previous service."

Trashcan sizes range from 12 gallons to 96 gallons. The monthly collection fee for a medium-sized 32 gallon can is $29.80. The fee for the next sized bigger can, which is 64 gallons, is $59.60.

About eight percent of the pilot program participants chose to upsize their cans. “We got a lot fewer upsizers than we expected,” Croll said.

To some extent, satisfaction rates among pilot program participants varied based on income and race. Seventy percent of households with incomes over $60,000 were satisfied with the biweekly trash pickups, while the same was true for only 61 percent of households with incomes under $60,000. Satisfaction rates for white and Asian participants were around 70 percent, but dropped to 50 percent among other racial and ethnic groups.

In a 2011 SPU survey, only about 33 percent of customers said they’d be satisfied with trash pickups every other week.

“It shows that actually living through it makes a big difference,” Croll said. “Many people approached with trepidation at first and then got used to it.”

The Libraries, Utilities and Seattle Center committee plans to vote on the proposal next week. If it passes, then a full council vote on legislation that directs SPU to switch service would likely take place in February. The earliest that the changes would go into effect would be early 2015.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct the estimated effects on household bills under the proposal.


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