Seattle’s Recycling Success Is Being Measured in Scraps

Khadija Al Mousa
EVERETT, Wash. — Out here next to Steamboat Slough and the lumber mill, piles of garbage from Seattle are lined up in neat rows and blanketed with a fabric similar to that used in high-end Gore-Tex clothing.
What goes in as yard waste and food scraps will emerge two months later as a mountain of loamy compost sold by the bag at garden centers throughout the Pacific Northwest by Cedar Grove Composting. In the process, the waste is ground up, piled up, aerated, dried and sifted. The space-age fabric covering the piles allows air to enter but keeps pungent odors from wafting over the countryside.
“This is the cool side of trash,” Cedar Grove’s founder, Steve Banchero, said of the process, which is on recycling’s cutting edge.
The company, the major composter in this area, will soon have much more trash coming its way because Seattle is making food waste yet another mandatory recycling ingredient in its already long list.
“The food-waste issue is the new frontier for recycling advocates,” said Kate Krebs, the executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. “It’s the next big chunk.”
Seattle now recycles 44 percent of its trash, compared with the national average of around 30 percent, which makes it a major player in big-city waste recovery. Its goal, city waste management officials said, is to reach 60 percent by 2012 and 72 percent by 2025.
In many other parts of the country, recycling is in the doldrums — and in some cases backsliding — despite the sounding of environmental alarms about global warming and shrinking resources. And it is a far cry from recycling’s heyday, after the nation was jarred into action in 1987 by images of a barge carrying garbage from Long Island being towed up and down the East Coast in search of a place to unload. Six months later, its cargo was returned to New York and burned in a Brooklyn incinerator.
The wandering barge had a profound effect on the American psyche, and within three years most states had passed laws requiring some kind of recycling. But recycling victories are now gauged in much smaller increments. In Seattle’s case, the latest success is measured in scraps.
As the law now stands in Seattle, residents of single family houses are allowed to mix food scraps with yard waste, which is then shipped off to be composted. Recycling of food scraps will become mandatory in 2009.
The new law may add yet another container for curbside pickup, which already includes receptacles for nonrecyclable trash, yard waste, glass and other recyclables. In Seattle, many residents take pride that their weekly nonrecyclable output fits in a container no larger than the average countertop microwave.
But like other cities, Seattle also found itself in a recycling skid a few years back, losing ground to apathy despite being a pacesetter in the boom years of the late ’80s.
“We hit a cardboard ceiling,” said Tim Croll of the Seattle Public Utilities.
The city’s response was to ban paper and cardboard from nonrecyclable garbage — with enforcement penalties — followed by allowing food scraps to be mingled with yard waste.
Still, Seattle’s progress on the home front addresses only part of the challenge of use and reuse. Commercial recycling is in its infancy, though programs have been going for some time — and with considerable success — in places like the San Francisco Bay Area.
The larger picture is that the West Coast is a recycling bellwether, given the emphasis placed on it in Washington, Oregon and California. That includes legislation in California that requires 50 percent of waste statewide to be recycled.
“People are just a little greener on the West Coast,” Mr. Croll said.

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