Seattle looking at trash collection cuts as likely environmental winner

Renton's experience with biweekly collection has been positive and rates for some customers could drop by 10 to 11 percent. The council will decide whether to make the change by March.
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Renton's experience with biweekly collection has been positive and rates for some customers could drop by 10 to 11 percent. The council will decide whether to make the change by March.

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'ꀐterm customer garbage can changes, would maintain some incentive for customers to recycle more, and would provide a larger discount to the 70'ꀐ90 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'ꀐ30 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.

In Renton, Waste Management Inc. provides biweekly trash service for about 16,000 residential customers. The city switched to every-other-week pickups, introduced compost collection and increased residential service prices by 37 percent in 2009.

Linda Knight, Renton’s solid waste coordinator, said that during the first two and a half months after the changes took place there were some detractors. “People were revved up about it,” she said. After that, however, customers adjusted.

“I can count on one hand the number of complaints I get that it’s an every other week collection,” she said. “We’re not getting enough negative comments to switch back.”

The city has not had reports of vermin or bad smells due to the biweekly pickups, Knight said. But she added that Renton customers also switched from their own trashcans to waste hauler-issued cans in 2009 and that those containers are typically more secure.

Despite the "One Less Truck Project's" name, SPU estimates that biweekly trash service would reduce garbage hauler traffic by roughly 30 percent. Waste Management currently uses a fleet of about 100 compressed natural gas powered trucks to service Seattle, spokesman Robin Freedman said.

SPU also projects that the service change could cause Seattleites to send 9,000 less tons of garbage to landfills each year and that the city’s recycling rate would increase by 1.3 percentage-points. 

In Renton, recycling did increase when pickups became biweekly. In 2010, one year after the service change took place, residential customers put about 70 percent of waste in either recycling or composting bins. And compared to 2008, recycling tonnage in 2010 increased by 27 percent, while garbage tonnage decreased by 18 percent. 

“It helps people confront their own consumption patterns and just throwing things away all the time,” Knight said. “It does give you pause to think about, Oh, I’ve got another week to go and here’s what I’ve got in my container already.”

Knight could not provide an estimate on Monday for any changes in the amount of garbage truck traffic. She also said the city has not done a customer satisfaction survey since the new collection schedule went into effect, but would likely conduct one in 2014 or 2015.

Seattle currently provides biweekly recycling pickups and weekly compost and yard waste collection service. Conlin said last week that while councilmembers have discussed switching recycling pickups to a weekly schedule, the change would negate the reduced truck traffic and cost savings created by biweekly trash service. 

Whatever collection schedule the city chooses, the trash hauling companies are on board. 

“We don’t have a position one way or another,” Waste Management’s Freedman said. 

CleanScapes took a similar tack.

“We leave it up to the policy makers to decide what level of service is in the best interest of their community,” spokesman Kevin Kelly said. But he added: “From our perspective there is both a financial and environmental incentive to recycle more.”

Monday’s vote took place during Conlin’s last full council meeting (He was defeated in a reelection campaign earlier this year.). Before the vote on the bill, Councilmember Jean Godden thanked him for his work on recycling initiatives in Seattle.

“I hope that the council will get these contracts in place,” Conlin said, “so that we have the opportunity to do this and will move forward with approving this arrangement next year.”


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