by Emma Bjornsrud
Bellingham recycling and garbage company staff sorted through a mountain of cans, bottles, cardboard and paper to evaluate whether the company could offer the city a more efficient way to recycle.
The answer? Yes, we can, said Ted Carlson, who participated in the experiment, and is the general manager of Sanitary Service Company (SSC), the city’s trash contractor.
Bellingham residents, who voluntarily recycle, take the time to sort through household waste and place glass, aluminum, plastic, paper and newspaper into blue, red and white bins and put them on the curb weekly along with their trash containers. Customers can also recycle cardboard curbside, bundled beside the bins.
SSC will propose an amendment to their city contract to replace the three-bin recycling service with an every-other-week single-stream recycling program, Carlson told the city council at its Oct. 24 meeting. The proposal will also likely include a change to the company’s FoodPlus! program to collect more food waste and other organic material.
Trial Project in Edgemoor
SSC implemented a single-stream recycling trial project for more than 700 customers in the Edgemoor neighborhood in south Bellingham from May 6 through Nov. 4. The trial program ran an every-other-week collection schedule. Each participating household was given a 96-gallon curbside Toter bin, similar to standard garbage containers. SSC collected mixed glass, plastic, metal, paper, newspaper and cardboard in each bin.
The company selected the Edgemoor neighborhood for its clear boundaries, making distribution of new recycling bins and biweekly recycling collection easier. Additionally, the program ran fewer trucks than a standard pickup, which reduced carbon emissions on the route to Edgemoor, the Bellingham neighborhood farthest from the Ferndale recycling facility.
SSC deemed the test a success, and plans to move forward with a proposal to the city council to begin single-stream recycling citywide in the near future, Carlson said at the Oct. 24 meeting. Overall, the program collected the same amount of recycling as usual, but reduced trucking and labor costs by 65 percent, Carlson said.
Customers participating in the trial voiced mostly positive feedback, including cleaner streets on windy trash days, less time spent sorting their recycling, and more space for cardboard and large items. Some customers, already accustomed to sorting recycling, were indifferent. One of the only objections from customers was the large size of the 96-gallon bins, which take up a third more space than the three sorted bins combined.
“We in Edgemoor have been the guinea pigs for the new recycling program,” said Barbara Ryan, an Edgemoor resident. “While it seems far more convenient for me, I have often wished someone would follow the recycled trash from my house to wherever it lands to see how much of it is really recycled.”
Carlson said SSC consulted environmental groups including staff at the state Department of Ecology, RE Sources and Zero Waste Washington, who expressed concern for the loss of the existing progressive and well-regarded program.
Though it has its own downsides, the three-bin system is less likely to require “contaminated” materials to be picked out and removed.
SSC employees now dump each of the existing three bins into compartments on a separate recycling truck.
Separating cardboard from glass prevents small shards from wedging into the fiber and becoming a hazard for the next person handling it. That means fewer materials leave the recycling facilities with a one-way ticket to the landfill.
Although Carlson did not report an increased number of customers participating in recycling during the program, he said the amount of contaminated material from the trial was roughly on par with contamination levels from the three-bin system, based on the informal audit performed by SSC staff.
The audit consisted of a load of single-stream recycling dumped on the “tipping” floor, where trucks unload compacted material. Employees dug through residential recycling from curbside collection. Carlson said at the Oct. 24 meeting that their final finding of 20 to 25 percent contamination from broken glass and liquids matches the industry standard for contaminated, unrecyclable materials.
Environmental groups proposed a compromise of a dual-stream, or two-bin, system. Under this model, customers would receive two recycling bins: one for glass, metal and plastic and one for paper and cardboard.
Carlson said this kind of system would likely require a weekly pickup, costing more for labor and fuel, as well as taking up even more space next to the garbage and FoodPlus! bins many customers already pay for.
Carlson mentioned the possibility of halting curbside collection of glass recycling to divert it from the single-stream and prevent broken glass contamination. SSC could offer glass recycling if individuals are willing to bring glass material to a centralized drop-off point. Instead, however, SSC favors the original single-stream idea that sacrifices higher contamination rates for improved staff recruitment and lower operating costs.
“I find it to be a little bit suspicious that the company is trying to push this as hard as they are,” said Jack Weiss, a former Bellingham City Council member. “It’s for their own purposes, not looking out for what’s best for the community.”
He previously served as the executive director for Bellingham Community Recycling, and, after that, the Waste Reduction and Recycling Coordinator for the city and county. Weiss said analyses in the ‘80s pointed to a sorted recycling program over a single-stream program because of the cons of the simplified system.
Weiss also said the larger bins might end up contaminated with more non-recyclable material because, while the existing smaller, colored bins more obviously signify recycling on curbsides, the Toter bins more closely resemble garbage cans. This could introduce additional contamination that requires removal at a later stage in the process, Weiss said.
One of SSC’s reasons for proposing a switch to a single-stream system is to reduce driver injuries that occur when they are frequently getting in and out of the truck, and lifting bins up to 35 pounds.
Under the current system, drivers get out of their trucks to pick up the red, blue and white bins between 600 and 800 times a day. In the Edgemoor trial, this number was reduced to a couple dozen times, Carlson said at the city council meeting.
The contaminants must be removed so that the material can be purchased and recycled. However, the markets for raw materials change drastically in very little time, making it difficult for SSC to predict and set rates for their services.
Carlson reported a cost of $242 to recycle one ton of clean, sorted materials at the Oct. 24 meeting, a price that has already gone up this month, according to Eric Johnston, Bellingham’s public works director. It only costs $107 to send the same amount of material to a landfill. Labor and trucking costs for recycling are three to four times that of garbage.
The city has an administrative contract with SSC that requires them to offer recycling collection. When SSC proposes an amendment to this contract, city council will supply policy direction that will influence the negotiations and ultimate amendment.
Johnston said SSC and the city are aiming to develop a solution that meets industry standards, benefits the climate and increases customer satisfaction.
“[For] an average homeowner, it’s three to four times more expensive to take your bottles and cans to the recycling than it is to take your garbage from your house to the same location,” he said. “Part of the challenge there is, with curb-sorted recycling, those trucks do not, and cannot, compact material.”
Loose, uncompacted recyclable materials fill up trucks much faster than garbage trucks, which can compact and collect more.
“At some point, the truck can’t put any more empty pop bottles in it,” Johnston said. “So you can see how that very quickly adds to the cost.”
Although he said the cost of disposal is not likely to decrease soon, reducing the cost of labor and transportation is within SSC and the city’s control. Implementation of the single-stream program would be an attempt to keep costs down for customers amid prospects of continually increasing international recycling rates.
Citizens who pay for residential garbage service from SSC are also paying for recycling collection.
SSC includes curbside recycling in the price of garbage collection, with weekly collection within city limits. Garbage rates currently stand at $50.88 a month for weekly pickups, $27.78 a month for every-other-week pickups, and $15.57 a month for once-a-month pickups. Billing is every other month for Bellingham customers.
Bellingham’s Changing Recycling System
Johnston said the dynamics supporting a sorted-recycling system in Bellingham have changed enough in the past five years that the infrastructure should be reevaluated to best serve the needs of the community.
Whatcom County does not have a single-stream recycling facility, so materials collected in Bellingham’s mixed pickups would be stored in 150-yard trailers for transportation to southern facilities.
“There is currently capacity at several single-stream recycling facilities in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties,” Carlson said in an email.
In King County, Kirkland’s population is similar to Bellingham’s. Kirkland uses Waste Management for their weekly garbage and single-stream recycling collection service. King County is collecting public comments for a state-of-the-art recycling and transfer facility proposed for Kirkland or Woodinville.
“In the hierarchy of solid waste, it’s reduce, reuse, recycle,” Johnston said. “‘Recycle’ is the last of the elements; it’s not the first. So the very first thing we need to be focusing on is reducing, reducing, reducing.”
While Bellingham is still going to experience rainy, windy trash days, it might soon become a faster, easier recycling process for customers, reducing the amount of litter and the number of trucks on the roads. Whether the new program will be as effective at reducing contaminated, unrecyclable materials is yet to be seen.
“There are lots of perspectives and we’re looking forward to having that conversation in the next couple of months,” Johnston said.
For more information about the current recycling program, contact www.ssc-inc.com or call 360-734-3490.
SSC distributes curbside recycling collection bins to all single-family residences and multifamily units that pay for garbage collection from the company for voluntary participation.
SSC’s rates are not published online, as they are subject to frequent change and vary depending on the type of collection, selection of services and location. Rates are set by the administrative contract between the city and SSC.
SSC pays the entire cost of garbage and recycling collection, but charges on a cost-plus basis, meaning they can pass on costs to customers and collect a profit. The city does not receive any part of the collection profit, but does charge taxes on the service.
Current SSC Rates
• Weekly pickups: $50.88 per month
• Every-other-week pickups: $27.78 per month
• Once-a-month pickups: $15.57 per month
Garbage beyond the limits of curbside Toter bins is collected for an additional charge. Moderate quantities of additional recyclable materials are collected at no extra charge.
Billing is every other month for Bellingham and Ferndale customers and every three months for all other residential customers. County residents pay a commodity charge of $1.69 for recycling collection.
History of Sanitary Service Company Inc.
1929 Local businessmen open Sanitary Service Company as the first garbage collection company in the city.
1989 The city of Bellingham began a residential curbside recycling collection system with SSC.
2005 SSC began running all garbage and recycling trucks on biodiesel fuel.
2017 China bans some scrap imports which reduces the material available for export from the United States.
2021 Northwest Recycling Inc. closes its Bellingham facility.
2022 Six-month trial single-stream recycling program takes place in the Edgemoor neighborhood.
Emma Bjornsrud is in her final quarter at Western Washington University studying environmental journalism. Emma is the current editor-in-chief for The Planet, a student-run environmental magazine. You can email them at emmab.journalism@ gmail.com.