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Tuesday, December 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:55 A.M.

Seattle council makes recycling mandatory

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Recycling will become mandatory in Seattle under new rules the City Council passed unanimously yesterday.

The new rules require Seattle residents to recycle paper, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles, and aluminum and tin cans, starting Jan. 1, 2005. If these recyclable materials are found in garbage cans and trash bins, the containers will be tagged as part of a yearlong education campaign.

Beginning in 2006, residential customers will be warned if the materials are found in trash receptacles. If banned materials are found three times, the city will refuse to collect the garbage until such items are removed.

Commercial customers can be fined up to $50 for each container that includes banned materials. But single-family households will not face a monetary penalty under the new rules.

The rules stem from Seattle's slumping recycling rate, which dropped from 44 percent in 1995 to 38 percent in 2001. The city's goal is a 60 percent recycling rate by 2010. The city was supposed to hit a 52 percent rate last year.

"Our main purpose is to get people to recycle more paper. That's our main emphasis, not the punitive points of this," said Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Nickels, who sent the recycling initiative to the council earlier this year.

Seattleites throw out about 72,000 tons of recyclable paper each year.

Nickels' original proposal also called for commercial customers, such as restaurants, to recycle food waste, but the new rules don't require that. City officials still are refining the details of such a plan.

"We need food waste to make our goal, no question. That's still a core part of our proposal," said Tim Croll, community-services director for Seattle Public Utilities.

The city is negotiating rates, collection schedule, billing and customer service for the food-waste program, Croll said.

The new rules require the city to launch an education program in 2004, then a "tagging" and warning program in 2005, followed in 2006 by actual enforcement.

"This will stiffen people's spines, I think," said Alan Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch. "I hope the city will hurry and move on to food-waste recycling because it's the next frontier."

The recycling initiative is projected to have a net cost of $272,000 next year. By 2007, a net savings of more than $2 million is projected, according to Councilwoman Margaret Pageler, as more waste is diverted from landfills and the city saves on disposal costs.

Seattleites are generating more garbage every day, up from 2.38 pounds per person per day in 1990 to 2.6 pounds per day in 2001.

Theories abound as to why recycling has fallen in Seattle and other cities. Some say recycling is not as trendy as it once was. Others point to declining prices for recyclable materials. "People may be getting a little lazy, a little sloppy," Durning said.

This much is clear, according to city officials: While single-family households have seen just a slight dip in recycling, the big problem is on the commercial side, where business-recycling rates have dropped 12 percent since 1995.

City officials stressed that customers should not worry about dramatic changes to their current service. "One misplaced piece doesn't make it a federal case. We're not going to slash open plastic bags. We don't have time to do it," said Croll.

Instead, Croll said, garbage collectors will pop the lid on a typical residential garbage can and look for an obvious infraction, such as newspapers piled on top of trash bags. If it appears that more than 10 percent of the garbage is made up of recyclable materials, then a customer will be notified and warned.

Inspections will be different on the commercial side, which includes business, institutions and multifamily housing complexes. Croll said city staffers will use a random method to check customers. Then they will look into trash bins for evidence.

Elderly or frail citizens can receive help, he noted, so they don't have to take their containers out to the curb. If they call Seattle Public Utilities and make arrangements, city collectors will pick up garbage, yard waste and recycling from the side or back of the house.

"This will be a milestone and hopefully restore our lead in recycling," said Council President Peter Steinbrueck. "It is not unduly onerous, to business in particular."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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