Green merit badge? Recycling just isn’t good enough anymore

Jan 31, 2011

Sure, like most Northwesterners, you recycle like a demon. Cans, glass, plastic, yard waste. You even compost your kitchen scraps. You’re a regular environmental hero.

Or maybe not ...

Tim Croll, head of solid waste for Seattle Public Utilities, points out that that even recycling uses a lot of energy, fossil fuel and natural resources.

“I talk to a lot of our customers and they say, ‘I’m a great recycler. You should see all the recycling I put out all the time.’ And that’s good. It’s good not to have it in the garbage. But really, the best next step, what we’re really going toward, is to reduce the amount of waste overall.”

It’s not just the environmental costs.

The City of Seattle spends millions each year dealing with recyclables. Trimming that could save a lot of money.

So the city, King County and CleanScapes (CleanScapes is one of two contractors who provide waste and recycling services to Seattle) are challenging Seattle neighborhoods to reduce how much they toss out ...

Media stunt

Monday morning, three garbage trucks dump out trash, recyclables and yard waste on the pavement at the city transfer station in the Fremont neighborhood. It’s three tons of waste, about what a typical Seattle family of four creates each year.

The event – for the benefit of the TV cameras and radio mikes --  is meant to dramatize just how much stuff we actually toss out.

The largest pile is the recyclables. I ask CleanScapes president Chris Martin, “Isn’t that a good thing?”

Well, yeah, he says. But all that stuff not only used a lot of resources to get manufactured and shipped to market. Now, he says …

“We’re driving around picking it all up, taking it to a facility that’s using a lot of energy to sort it, bundle it, ship it back to China, where the process starts over again.”

Dollars for decreasing detritus

Martin’s company is offering a $50,000 community project award to the Seattle neighborhood that most reduces its waste this year.

If folks can develop habits that create less waste – including recyclables – it’s better for the planet, better for the city, and better for CleanScapes, too.

CleanScapes has financial incentives to reduce volume built into its contract with the city. The company says it doesn’t expect to hit those goals for a few more years. Until then, the prize money comes out of the company’s pocket.