Zero Waste — Frugality Works In Seattle

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Columbia Ridge LandfillIn 2010 Seattle sent 335,600 tons of solid waste to the Columbia Ridge Landfill in eastern Oregon.  That’s what we need to target for reduction.  The good news is that we continue to make great progress, and a recent study of residential waste demonstrates how well we are doing, and where we have opportunities to do better.

Single family households lead the way towards the zero waste goal.  In 1987, they sent almost 150,000 tons of waste to the landfill, but by 2010 that had been cut to some 64,000 tons.  Total waste generated peaked in 1999, and has been slowly falling since then, while more than 2/3 of single family waste was either recycled or composted in 2010.

That’s the achievement.  There’s also an opportunity.  27% of the waste sent to the landfill could have been recycled, while 31% could have been composted through our organics pickup.  Getting those amounts out of the waste stream would have reduced waste by another 40,000 tons.  Further education and incentives can help to achieve that.

Most of the rest falls into three categories:  pet waste and diapers (23%), non recyclable paper, glass, metals, and plastics (6%), and miscellaneous items such as small scraps and construction waste (13%).  These last three categories will be tough, although some progress is possible by adding materials to the recyclable list and emphasizing waste reduction.

Disposal of waste from multi-family households has declined by a somewhat smaller percentage, from around 60,000 tons in 1995 to 51,500 in 2010.  The multi-family recycling rate is only 27%, so there are great opportunities to further reduce that waste – 31% of the remainder are recyclable items, and 33% is compostable.  Perhaps not surprisingly, diapers and pet waste are only 11% of the tons disposed of by multi-family households, with non-recyclables, appliances, and miscellaneous waste comprising most of the rest.

Seattle can be proud of our steady progress in reducing the total amount of waste we generate and in increasing the percentage of that waste we either recycle or compost.  Economists have long assumed that waste generation increases with economic activity.  Even discounting the impacts of the recession, Seattle has many more people and much more economic activity than it did 20 years ago.  Seattle’s performance, however, shows that frugality can coexist with strong economic performance – a key message for a sustainable future.