Garbage Truck ( Monday, December 16, the Council approved legislation authorizing Seattle Public Utilities to revise its contracts with solid waste collection companies to allow implementing the “One Less Truck” program in 2015. The legislation sets the stage for a Council decision early next year on whether to proceed with every other week garbage collection to continue implementing the Zero Waste Strategy adopted in 2007. The Council took this action after reviewing the results of a pilot program conducted in four neighborhoods that indicated that most residents had a favorable reaction to this change in service.

Every other week garbage collection could provide one more incentive for waste reduction, cut garbage truck traffic in our neighborhoods by 20%, cut fuel consumption, greenhouse emissions, and air pollution, and reduce overall system costs by about $6 million annually. The cost savings will be passed on to rate payers as the Council adopts new rates in the future.

Seattle is rightfully proud of our commitment to recycling and waste reduction. We have adopted universal recycling and organics collections and dramatically reduced the amount of garbage we send to the landfill. We’ve banned disposable items that have readily available substitutes, like Styrofoam takeout containers and plastic grocery bags. We’re rebuilding our transfer stations to make it easy and convenient to recycle building materials and other items.  And we continue to work to find new ways to reduce garbage costs.

Universal organics collection was a key step in implementing the Zero Waste strategy. The things that actually have to go into the garbage can are down to a few kinds of plastics and some other items (like kitty litter and disposable diapers) that are pretty challenging to recycle. Many customers, even those with the smallest garbage containers, either do not set out their containers every week or set them out half-empty.

Through the One Less Truck Pilot Project, SPU learned that implementing this program Citywide is generally, but not universally, acceptable to the public. SPU also learned a lot about customer preferences for how to implement the program. Because this would be a major change in our solid waste collection system, Council directed SPU to conduct a pilot project to understand the potential impacts. Our goal was to see how people in different neighborhoods would react, whether it would increase recycling and composting, and what rate structure and operation pattern worked best for most people.

The pilot was conducted in four different single-family neighborhoods around Seattle, selected to represent a wide range of households by income and ethnicity, between July and December of 2012. The neighborhoods selected were in Wedgwood, Leschi, Dunlap, and Highland Park, each with 200 customers. Customers were assigned to two different rate designs structured to reward increased recycling and composting, and were given a stipend for participating.

Of the customers who experienced the new collection system, 63% were generally satisfied after the pilot. This is almost double the number who anticipated they would be satisfied in a citywide survey conducted in 2011, when only 33% of customers thought they would like the new system. While the 63% number is significantly lower than the 89% who expressed satisfaction with their current service, past experience has shown that it takes time to get used to new patterns, and it seems likely that a very large majority of people would find this system workable in time.

Generally, people with larger households and lower incomes were less satisfied with the system – only 58% of households with diapers, for example — but no group fell below 50%. Satisfied customers liked the improved efficiencies, cost reductions, and reduced truck traffic. Dissatisfied customers were concerned about smells, odors, and pests, and with having to wait two weeks if they missed a collection. Participants supported citywide implementation 53 to 33%, with, not surprisingly, supporters being generally satisfied and opponents generally dissatisfied.

Pilot households reduced garbage by 15%, and reported increased recycling and composting. Projected citywide, this would reduce garbage disposal by 9,000 tons per year. In general, the results suggest that citywide implementation would be a positive step for most customers and for implementation of our Zero Waste Strategy.

Respondents also gave useful information about how the program could be implemented. They requested same week pick up of garbage and recycling, so they would not have to worry about which can to put out. They also suggested that there needs to be accompanying education programs to minimize problems like odors and overflowing cans. And they recommended providing some kind of transition or mitigation program such as free extra garbage pickups or diaper pickups.

SPU’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee reviewed the pilot, and recommended proceeding with full implementation. Members of its Customer Panel were also favorable to the program, although they did not make a formal recommendation. Because the contracts require a one year notice for this kind of modification, the Council will have to take action early in 2014 to proceed with implementation in 2015. Portland and Renton are among the cities that have already adopted every other week collection, and I hope Seattle will join them in this progressive step.