Council moves toward yanking weekly trash service

A Seattle City Council committee wants to cut collection frequency in half even though a survey shows customers are much less satisfied with biweekly service.
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One less truck?

A Seattle City Council committee wants to cut collection frequency in half even though a survey shows customers are much less satisfied with biweekly service.

Taking an initial step toward cutting the frequency of residential trash collection services in Seattle by half, a City Council committee approved a bill on Tuesday that will allow Seattle Public Utilities to renegotiate contracts with solid waste haulers.

Two waste haulers — Waste Management of Washington, Inc. and CleanScapes, Inc. — currently collect garbage every week in Seattle. The bill would give Seattle Public Utilities the ability to change the city's contracts with those companies to allow for biweekly pickups. SPU says the switch from weekly to biweekly service could save the city $5 million to $6 million annually, decrease the amount of landfill-bound waste and reduce garbage truck traffic.

A recent pilot study found that 63 percent of customers were satisfied with biweekly pickups. 

That satisfaction rate, however, is significantly lower than the 89 percent of customers who are happy with the current weekly collection schedule. And some pilot participants reported upticks in vermin sightings and garbage-related odors.

If the bill passes a full council vote, it will give councilmembers and incoming Mayor Ed Murray the option to decide by March 1 whether to change the garbage collection schedule. The earliest that biweekly service could go into effect is April 2015. The service change would only apply to residential structures using garbage cans.

“This legislation today does not initiate a garbage service change,” emphasized Libraries, Utilities, and Seattle Center Committee chair Jean Godden during the meeting. “The council and the new mayor will be weighing the cost savings and recycling benefits of the decision early next year.”

During the committee meeting, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw asked SPU’s director of solid waste, Tim Croll, how the accumulation of two weeks of garbage affects the number of trucks trash haulers need to send out on each collection route. 

“If they’re picking up all the garbage every two weeks," Croll said, "then the routes are going to be smaller because the truck will fill up quicker."

“It goes into their calculations of the price,” he also said. “That’s why the price is not, like, half off for the service.”

SPU estimates that, on average, single-family customers could see a rate reduction of about 6 percent under the biweekly regime, but trash pickups would occur half as often. Meanwhile, households that need to “upsize” their trash can to hold two weeks of waste would pay more than they currently do for service. About eight percent of pilot participants bumped up their can size. 

Trash-can 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. 

Asked in an email on Monday if the service change amounted to a back-door rate increase, committee member Richard Conlin pointed to the low percentage of can upsizers and also said: “The Council has taken the tough votes in public as we always do when we have judged that rate increases are necessary, it’s silly and insulting to suggest that we would need or want to use a subterfuge.”

While the pilot project was coined “One Less Truck,” the number of garbage trucks on the road would actually drop by an estimated 30 percent, according to SPU officials who spoke at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

“I think experientially in your neighborhood it is one less truck,” said SPU’s solid waste contracts manager Hans Van Dusen.

“For those who do like it, the actual experience of one less truck driving down their narrow street," he said, "is exactly that: one less truck.”

Based on the results of the pilot study, SPU projects that city residents would send about 9,000 fewer tons of garbage to landfills each year if trash pickups were biweekly. Additionally, SPU estimates that the Seattle's recycling rate would increase by 1.3 percentage-points.

Conlin said in his email that while the committee has discussed switching to once-a-week recycling pickups, "it is not necessary, since people can put out as much recycling as they want at no charge when the pickup takes place." Adding more recycling pickups after switching to a biweekly garbage collection schedule "would eliminate the cost savings and the reduced truck traffic," he wrote.

“Our hope,” Conlin said during the meeting, “is this helps people reduce garbage and that ultimately there will some reduction in the total tonnage.”


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