By John Larson
Changes in the global recycling market over the past few years have created a situation in which the city of Tacoma must address how it handles the issue. For a number of years, the city has had curbside pickup for residential customers. The green bin is for garbage, the blue bin for co-mingled recycling except for glass, the brown bin for yard waste and food scraps and the small, blue containers used for glass. China, a major destination of much of America’s recycled matter, has implemented new restrictions aimed at contamination in the recycling stream. City staff have spent the past 18 months studying the issue. They presented their findings during the June 11 council study session.
Mike Slevin, environmental services director, explained how the city is dealing with what is a national and international issues. Staff knew about two years ago that this would become a major issue. Last year the city implemented rate increases for garbage and recycling pickup, which are now in effect.
Staff is studying four options. These have been presented to meetings of the council’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee, which made some suggestions. Staff have spent the past six months on public outreach.
Lewis Griffith, Solid Waste Management division manager, discussed the new Chinese regulations. The root cause of the problem is contamination in the commodities in co-mingled recycling, which he said has been an issue for a long time. This drives up costs in three ways. The processing costs have gone up due to the stricter limits. Shipping costs have gone up and the cost of the recycled material going to market has changed. The city used to generate some revenue from recycling, but now is having to pay to have the material hauled away and processed.
The cost to the city, after spending money to collect the material, was about at the break-even amount at the end of 2017. Since the beginning of 2018 the city is now losing money on recycling. Griffith said this amounts to about $115 to $120 per ton, which the city has not budgeted for. It is projected this will cost $2.9 million in 2019. The cost to customers will be an extra $2 to $4 per month. “This is not something we can sustain.”
One option is to maintain the status quo, with a rate increase of $3 per customer per month. The main change with this proposal is to no longer accept items that are problematic, meaning they can clog the machinery used to sort them and have little if any market. These include shredded paper, plastic
The next option is similar, except glass collection will end. Customers would have the option to take glass to collection bins.
Another option is to end curbside recycling and only pick up garbage. This would involve a cost increase of $1.33 per month, to cover the cost of hauling recyclable material to a landfill. Griffith said this option would be difficult to implement. Most customers would have to switch to a larger garbage can. The rate increase would be permanent, rather than temporary.
The final option would add a surcharge of $3.40 per month, with $1 going to fund additional education and outreach. The surcharge would be in effect through at least 2020.
Preston Peck is a project specialist who began working for the city in December to handle outreach. He told the council about the multiple tactics used to get the word out and gather feedback. A website was launched in January, with a survey in English and five other languages. The consulting firm EnviroIssues was hired to conduct three focus groups. Staff attended several public events, including the Asia Pacific Cultural Center new year celebration. That organization, as well as Korean Women’s Association, helped to translate the message into Khmer, Vietnamese and Korean. There were more than 7,400 survey responses. Most were done online, with some being turned in on paper copies.
Three focus groups were convened. One was for Tacomans over the age of 40, one for Tacomans under 40 and another for those earning under the average median income.
About 2,400 of the survey responses had written comments. Peck split them into general themes. More than 25 requested the city to include an educational component. Some addressed barriers, such as people who cannot drive to the bottle collection locations, or people who use the bus. Some respondents urged the city to explore domestic processing options. Few said they never utilize the recycling option. Some noted this is an expensive part of the country to live in and noted that any increase will hit them in the wallet. Tacoma residents recognize what the problem is, according to Peck. He said it is forcing city departments to work together on solutions. “This has been a great exercise in inter departmental cooperation.”
A consultant reviewed the curbside glass pickup. He found about percent of customers participate. The containers are handled manually. The bottles are hauled to Seattle. Taking into account the labor costs and the emissions of vehicles that move the glass, this offsets most of the environmental benefit.
Staff is recommending the city maintain the current program, while making changes to remove problematic items such as milk cartons, coated packaging, plastic clamshell food containers and shredded paper from the blue bins. They would still take mixed paper, cardboard, tin cans, aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Doing so would harmonize Tacoma with the system in the surrounding suburban areas.
They also recommend stopping curbside glass pickup and fund additional environmental education efforts. Low-income residents would not have to pay the additional surcharge. This will not affect commercial rates, which will be addressed in the next budget cycle. The target for implementing the changes is October.
The plan is to have six unstaffed boxes for glass collection. Two others would be staffed and would accept batteries and other items.
Councilmember Catherine Ushka stressed the need for education, such as informing people that paper milk cartons cannot be recycled. She would also like consumers to consider product and packaging options. “The way to raise awareness of people’s thought processes is in their own homes,” she declared.
“I would like us to be bold in how we are going to do this,” said Councilmember Robert Thoms. He urged staff not to make the changes too complex. “People do not want to learn the industry. They just to put their can out and hope it gets picked up.”
Slevin noted a push in Tacoma a few years ago to accept pizza boxes in blue bins, something his department opposed because the food residue contaminates other recyclable material.
Calling this a recycling reset, Slevin said the city must have a system in line with market realities. “In some places we lost the connection with the markets. We got too dependent on the third world and other countries to clean up our messes as Americans.”
Councilmember Conor McCarthy said he supports curbside recycling. His concern with the proposed change is that customers will feel like they are paying more and getting less service. “I am not sure if I am sold on that being the next step.”’
He noted the cost of utilities is rising along with solid waste pickup. McCarthy said it seems like every time the city faces a challenge, its response is to go back and ask for more money.
Councilmember Lillian Hunter expressed concern that residents will interpret the message as they have been recycling wrong all along, and will therefore give up on it altogether.
Mayor Victoria Woodards noted that customers will pay more for less service, but she hopes they realize this would be done for an important reason. She sees a need for more outreach, especially to those who do not recycle. “I would agree there is a lot of education to be done.”