by Meghan Fenwick
This August, residents of the Birchwood neighborhood in Bellingham retired their red, white and blue recycling bins to make way for a single green 96-gallon toter.
On Feb. 27, the City Council approved renegotiation of the city’s contract with Sanitary Services Company (SSC). Under the new contract, residential recyclers will no longer separate their scrap paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, plastic containers and newspapers into separate bins. Instead, all single-family homes will be provided three separately labeled toters for garbage, recycling, and yard waste at no additional cost.
No Specific Timeline
The company settled on a slow rollout of the switchover, to “single-stream” recycling, largely because SSC does not have the resources in place yet to implement it citywide, including the toters and trucks. Many of SSC’s trucks were nearing the end of their lifespans at the time of the February council meeting.
Ted Carlson, general manager of SSC, said the company ordered the necessary equipment, but their suppliers have not given delivery timeframes. Additional equipment includes more 96-gallon toters and larger trucks, which were used in the pilot and could carry more recycled material, cutting down on mileage.
“There is no specific deadline for completion, just a commitment to make the transition as quickly as possible,” Carlson said.
The City of Bellingham and SSC first experimented with single-stream recycling through a pilot program in the Edgemoor neighborhood. Starting in May 2022, the six-month program showed promising results, including a decrease in carbon emissions, operational costs and injuries, according to Carlson.
Transition Runs Smoothly
The pilot confirmed that Bellingham residents are great recyclers,” Carlson said. “There were very few issues with the transition, and the comments from the Edgemoor neighborhood were primarily positive.”
SSC chose Edgemoor for the neighborhood’s clear boundary lines and because it worked well with the pre-existing collection schedules. Similarly, Birchwood was chosen next for operational reasons: the day of service aligned with SSC’s resources and the company’s recycling processor, Carlson said.
Sean O’Neill, the City of Bellingham’s solid waste manager, said the new contract better adheres to Bellingham’s 2018 Climate Action Plan, (1) where one of the goals is to reduce waste. The recycling yield in the Edgemoor pilot matched that of the three-bin system, though Carlson expects an increase in customer participation as single-stream rolls out further.
The new contract also offers SSC’s FoodPlus! Yardwaste toters to all residential customers. Yardwaste includes the collection of organic material such as food scraps, food-soiled paper, grass clippings, leaves and approved compostable packaging. For biweekly collections of compost, customers pay $13.04.
Compostable packaging requirements are determined by the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, and more guidance can be found on SSC’s website (5). The compost that residents pile in their toters is sent to Green Earth Technology in Lynden and sold to businesses in Whatcom County.
Single-stream is also a market solution. According to O’Neill, the international market for recyclable materials has become volatile. The demand for these materials has dropped, increasing the cost for SSC and other companies to dispose of them to almost double the cost of trash.
Recycling: Biweekly Instead of Weekly
SSC reported a 65 percent reduction in trucking and labor hours during the pilot program. With single stream, recycling pickups are made biweekly instead of the previous weekly schedule, cutting down on fossil fuel emissions. The trucks use an automated system operated by an employee to pick up the toters, reducing health risks to workers.
“These changes will not reduce the rates that customers are paying, but may help to reduce the amount of increases that are seen in the future,” said O’Neill.
The cost of garbage and recycling services was not affected by this change. As the cost to recycle is expected to increase, the city hopes that, by cutting down on operational costs, SSC can avoid raising customer rates in the future.
The price to recycle in Bellingham is rolled into the garbage rate. Customers can choose between weekly, biweekly and monthly garbage collections, and between 60- and 90-gallon toters. SSC does not offer 32-gallon toters, but customers may purchase them from stores and use them as a recycling container, according to Rodd Pemble, SSC’s recycling and safety manager. On the lower end of the price range, for 32-gallon collections monthly, customers pay $11.42. For once-a-week collections of a 90-gallon toter, customers pay $80.53.
SSC collected recyclables in Birchwood on August 14 and 28. All Bellingham residents can choose between weekly, biweekly or monthly garbage pickups. Compost pickups are biweekly. Collection days for Birchwood are every Monday, so if residents opted for a weekly garbage pickup, they can expect to see an SSC garbage truck every Monday and a recycling truck every other Monday.
Expecting an Increase
According to Carlson, SSC expects an increase in recycling participation citywide based on customer feedback from the Edgemoor pilot. A majority of customers said they appreciated the ease and convenience of single-stream recycling, where the responsibility of sorting the material falls on material recovery facilities (MRFs).
“The SSC is full of hard-working individuals, and they’re always polite and helpful when I call,” said Michael Klander, a Birchwood resident.
Klander said he worries that the automated pickups of the toters will result in wind-blown litter. SSC has stated that the large toters with lids have resulted in less debris as opposed to the small open bins.
“I’m sure there will be spillage,” said Klander. “These recycling toters have been used for years with institutions, businesses and apartments, and I see the mess these leave behind.”
SSC consulted environmental groups such as RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and Zero Waste Washington when considering single stream, and fielded concerns like this through customer calls and emails. SSC also spoke to the Birchwood Neighborhood Association before implementing the change.
The City of Bellingham gathered public opinion through council meetings. Another concern that residents voiced was the amount of glass contamination. In an Oct. 24 council meeting, Carlson said that, when glass is commingled with other recyclables, there is a higher chance that glass shards or liquid from the bottles will penetrate cardboard and paper material. In this case, the contaminated materials will suffer the same fate as trash and end up in a landfill.
“Many programs across the state include glass, and they have not had significant additional contamination, so we don’t expect it, either,” Carson said.
Sorting, Identifying Contaminants
Once SSC collects the recyclables, they are sent to a facility equipped to sort the material and identify contaminants through optical reading technologies. Many other Washington cities use single stream, such as Seattle, Olympia and Spokane. SSC currently sends its recycled material to the Lautenbach Recycling center, a material recovery facility (MRF), in Ferndale.
Like many other environmentally-conscious Bellingham residents, Klander said he worries that, even in an efficient system, his recycling toter will end up being “garbage toter 2.0.”
A study by the Washington Department of Ecology (2) revealed that, in 2012, about 7 percent of all recovered recyclable material in Washington was disposed of due to contamination. A 2022 Greenpeace report (3) revealed that only about 5 percent of recycled plastic gets repurposed nationwide.
“This might be better than what we had before, but still might not be acceptable over time or for the future,” Klander said.
Senate Bill 5022 (4), which went into effect July 2021, emphasizes the first “r” in reduce, reuse, and recycle. It requires Washington foodservice businesses to only provide single-use utensils and dinnerware upon request, and prohibits the sale of some types of plastics. It also requires the Department of Ecology to assess the lifespan of plastic packaging sold in the state.
The city, county, and state all have climate goals which include the reduction of waste. The City of Bellingham and SSC say they believe that single stream is the best way to reach those goals at the recycling stage, or the last step in waste reduction, while balancing cost concerns.
SSC directs customers to its website (5) for specific questions concerning collection schedules and approved material. The city says it hopes that residents will continue to reach out to both agencies to inform improvements to the program as needed.
Meghan Fenwick is a senior in her last quarter at Western Washington University. She is majoring in environmental journalism and loves exploring the connections between people and the natural world.