Monday, July 25, 2011

Garbage In

A number of talented bureaucrats who invented the recycling program in Seattle also played important roles in the creation of electricity conservation programs a few years earlier and transferred much of what they had learned about the stewardship of electricity to the stewardship of garbage.

Chinese protest scrap metal deliveries to Japan in 1936 after
China invades Manchuria
Oregon History Museum
There had always been a booming recycling industry in Seattle, particularly in scrap metals.  In 1939, the US was exporting 2,000,000 tons of scrap metal/year to Japan alone, much of it from the Pacific Northwest.  It took four years after the Japanese invaded China in 1936 for the government to cut off a major source of metals to Japan.  The steel in bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor contained American content.

Museum of History and Industry
Recycling in World War II was based on two powerful concepts, sacrifice and engagement.  Everybody could pitch in and lots did.  In October of 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt came to Seattle for a scrap metal collection event sponsored by all three newspapers, the Times, the Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Star.
She spoke in Victory Square, at University Street between 4th and 5th, and urged people to look at every object as having value to the war effort.  The paper boys distributed cans with slots in them to every grocery and drug store for keys that no longer fit the locks they were created for.  They contained, among other metals, nickel, a key component in batteries and other national defense products. 

Seattle Times

The theme of the event, “Get in the Scrap,” motivated volunteers throughout the Puget Sound to various collection points, where additional volunteers loaded trucks bound for Bethlehem Steel, the successor company to Charles Piggot’s Seattle Steel, founded in 1904 in the West Seattle tide flats.  Purchased by Nucor after Bethlehem Steel’s bankruptcy, it continues to recycle steel today and claims to be the largest recycler in the state.

The roots in Seattle’s recycling are found in the city's decision, in 1976, that its electric utility should pursue a mix of small hydro and conservation projects rather than purchase a position in two nuclear power plants pushed by a consortium of Northwest public utilities and backed by nearly all utilities in the region.
Seattle chose a different path because it used a different way of thinking about purchasing a new resource.  Then a new concept in the electricity industry, least cost planning meant that you included conservation as part of the planning equation, as well as the price responses of consumers and other factors.  The industry was extrapolating the growth curves of the fifties and sixties into the eighties and nineties, and that produced a clear and compelling picture of what to do -– buy more plants.
Seattle City Light

The least cost planning model produced a muddier image of the future in which electricity growth was uneven over time and the plans envisioned several different scenarios.   The shocker, at the time, was whatever scenario you chose, the price of conservation was beating just about any other resource by a big margin.  And there was plenty of conservation available. 
The biggest idea of the lot was that if you could delay purchase a more expensive resource by the acquisition of many small strategies, the consumer did better, there was less risk for the utility and the environment got a better deal as well. 
The utility industry hated the idea of least cost planning – until it adopted the concept after the economic collapse of the nuclear program in the Northwest.  Subsequently, the industry dropped the idea when it believed that Uncle Market would solve all its problems in a deregulated world and, chastened, took it up again after Enron’s collapse.

Geer Associates

Seattle’s waste strategy was not as tidy as its electricity strategy had become.  It was sending its construction and demolition debris to the Midway Landfill south of the city and its household and commercial waste to Kent Highlands, across I-5 from Midway.  Both were dubious sites from the start, Midway an unlined, mined out gravel pit full of hazardous materials and Kent Highlands, perched on the hill above the Kent Valley, seemed ready to tumble into the valley, garbage and all.

Explosive gasses from Midway migrated into houses nearby and they had to be evacuated.  Seattle closed down the landfill and began purchasing houses as the place became a Superfund site.  A stream running through Kent Highlands carried contaminants into the Kent Valley below.  It too got Superfund status.  All in, the clean up would cost $90 million dollars.

But the city still needed a place to take its garbage and it really had only one option – King County’s landfill, Cedar Hills.  The county noted accurately that it was the city’s only available option, recalled how the city had rebuffed its efforts to participate in the landfill years earlier and held the city up.  Seattle garbage rates increased 82%.
Seattle Public Utilities

The electricity mavens in the city, now garbologists, reasoned that the value of a recycled ton of garbage, much like a conserved electron, thrives on a higher cost alternative.  They created a variable can rate that charged significantly less for the smaller container and incentivized the faithful.   They banned grass clippings from garbage cans, incentivizing the compost industry.  They motivated their customers to try two different approaches to recycling.  In the northern part of the city, they asked them to sort their glass, aluminum, paper and cardboard at the curb.  In the south, they went with a one-big-box approach that was processed at a MRF, a materials recovery facility, a nightmare of conveyor belts, bursts from air pressure nozzles and flying cardboard.
And it worked like crazy.  Everyone was talking about garbage.  The Danes, the Germans, the Norwegians were worshipping the wizards of Seattle and studying every move they made.  “Tastes Great/Less Filling” disputes broke out between the sorters and the boxers, the sorters claiming that the slightly higher recycling rate by the boxers was more than offset by the smaller rate of contamination achieved by source separation. 
Already a good recycler at 28% of the waste stream in 1985, Seattle nearly doubled its recycling rate to 44% by 1989 and it set a goal of reducing, reusing or composting 60% of the waste stream by 1998.  
Seattle Public Utilities

The city still had to do something with the leftover garbage.  It proposed a garbage burner in the down-in-the-mouth neighborhood of Georgetown.  Georgetown crushed the idea and, by the way, became the completely cool neighborhood it is today.
The city finally settled on sending its garbage by train to a dry land, highly engineered Waste Management site in Oregon rather than continue with the confiscatory pricing of King County.
Its goal of 60% needed some adjusting in the nineties and now is set for 60% by 2012.  The city has picked up momentum again, improving its recycling performance for seven straight years.  Seattle Public Utilities most recent report, published on July 20, shows residential customers now recycling more than 70% of their garbage, commercial customers 60% and multi-family customers, where many strategies work less well, about 30%.  Overall, nearly 54% of the city’s waste is recycled today.  Not bad for a bunch of bureaucrats.
A sad footnote here – the boxers won.  The city ultimately abandoned the source separation strategy in favor of boxes that could also hold household food scraps.  Aptly, “less filling” wins the day.

Seattle's 1998 Solid Waste Management Plan

Seattle City Light Conservation Programs, 1977-2006

Puget Sound Energy's Least Cost Plan


  1. Bob, that post is chock-a-block with great stuff! I had forgotten just how much of a leader Seattle has been in both conservation and recycling. My own favorite Seattle garbage topic is the historic (historical?) use of key parts of the cityscape as garbage dumps. People under a certain age marvel when you tell them that the northern shore of Union Bay, Lower Genesee, and parts of Interbay were once humongous dumps. I remember the Union Bay dump as an impossibly vast wasteland criss-crossed by dirt roads winding through mountains of garbage, presided over by hundreds of wheeling seagulls at all times. You dumped your trash at a different place on every visit. I can still hear the roar of the bulldozers, and I can still smell it. One of these days I'd like to find a photographic record to see how exaggerated my childish impressions were. The best part of a trip to the dump was a stop at either Burgermaster or the root beer place (A&W?) at Five Corners on the way home. Imagine a big dump across NE 45th Street from U Village today...

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