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Originally published May 11, 2012 at 9:17 PM | Page modified May 12, 2012 at 8:48 AM

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Twice-monthly garbage pickup: Test families say sure, or yuck

Seattle Public Utilities sent letters this week to 800 households notifying them that they would be part of a pilot study to try every-other-week garbage collection beginning in July. Depending on the study results, the entire city could switch to bimonthly trash collection in 2015.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Test neighborhoods

Northeast: 30th Avenue Northeast to 35th Avenue Northeast and from Northeast 85th Street to Northeast 90th Street.

Central: 31st Avenue South to 34th Avenue South and from South Dearborn Street to South Day Street.

South: Rainier Avenue South to 45th Avenue South and from South Cloverdale Street to South Kenyon Street.

Southwest: 11th Avenue Southwest to 15th Avenue Southwest and from Southwest Barton Street to Southwest Roxbury Street.

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A 20-block area in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood is one of four locations where the city plans to experiment with twice-a-month, rather than weekly, garbage collection.

Within the test area, the Rosenbergers, with two children, two adults and a 20-gallon garbage can, say every-other-week collection won't be a problem.

"We'd manage just fine. We're underutilizing weekly service," said Ted Rosenberger, who supports the city's goals of cutting garbage-truck emissions and costs.

But around the corner, Evelyn Anderson, whose extended family on a sunny day was on the porch and in the yard, reacted with alarm to less-frequent garbage pickup.

"We're used to them coming every week, and I think it's necessary," she said.

Seattle Public Utilities, which manages solid-waste collection in the city, mailed letters to 800 homeowners this week to alert them that they would be part of a pilot project starting July 1 and running through December.

Two hundred households in four demographically diverse neighborhoods in the northeast, center, south and southwest of the city were chosen for the trial.

Free, unlimited recycling will still be every other week. Food- and yard-waste collection will remain weekly.

Participation in the pilot program isn't optional, but the city will reimburse all the study households $100 to offset any inconvenience and for the cost of a larger garbage can, if needed.

The city plans to study how people respond to less-frequent collection and whether it encourages greater recycling and composting.

Every-other-week garbage collection could save $6.4 million a year in operations as well as reduce truck traffic and carbon emissions, the city says. To highlight the potential environmental benefits, the utility is calling the program "One Less Truck."

Depending on the results of the study, the whole city could go to bimonthly garbage collection in 2015.

Two rate schedules

The utility also plans to test two rate schedules. In both, the cost of a 32-gallon can would drop by a few dollars with every-other-week pick up. The cost of a larger, 64-gallon can would go up by about $3 in one trial and $12 in another, to see if cost makes a difference in overall waste reduction, recycling and composting.

"We're trying to go into this with open minds and not prejudge. We're going to look at people's behavior and draw conclusions at the end," said Brett Stav, a senior planning and development specialist for the utility and part of the pilot-project team.

Stav said the utility plans to hold meetings with participating neighbors during the pilot to gauge reaction and hear about any problems. Participants will also be asked to evaluate the program when it ends.

"Everyone seems to have a theory about how this will work. We want to talk with them after they have actual experience," Stav said.

Collection days will remain the same in the pilot project, but the city also will experiment with what refuse is collected when. At some households garbage will be collected on the same day as recycling and for others it will be on alternate weeks.

Some skeptics hope the city analyzes the costs and benefits rigorously.

"What are the benchmarks for success? What are the unintended consequences? If people make a trip to the dump or somewhere else because their cans are full, how will the city know?" asked John Barnes, communications manager for the Washington Policy Center, a frequent critic of government.

Others have asked why their bills aren't dropping by half if collection is half as often. The utility says that's because garbage rates also pay for transfer stations, operations, recycling collection, customer service and other costs. Garbage collection is just 12 percent of the city's overall solid-waste expenses, Stav said.

Other cities' success

Several cities in the region including Renton, Olympia and Portland have switched to every-other-week garbage collection. Officials in those cities say residents' initial concerns about pricing and about smelly garbage piling up and attracting rodents proved unfounded.

"What we heard from people is that the amount of their garbage was significantly reduced and that any concerns they had with every-other-week collections were also significantly reduced," said Preeti Shridhar, communications director for Renton, which changed its collection schedule in 2009.

At the Anderson's vintage craftsman house in Leschi, Evelyn Anderson said the garbage can is usually full when it's collected each week. She worries about overflowing cans attracting rats and about trash being strewn around the neighborhood.

"Seattle is a clean city. I would hate for it to be anything else," she said.

But another elderly neighbor, Ben Esther Rivers, said she rarely fills her small can each week. When told the study participants would each receive $100, she said, "Thank the Lord. I need it."

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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