For most of the past year, many of the eggshells, banana peels and other table scraps once dumped without second thought into garbage cans across Tacoma have no longer ended up in the dump.
Launched citywide last April, Tacoma’s food composting program – which allows food scraps to be recycled in yard waste bins – has helped to reduce the city’s overall garbage output while increasing its yard waste stream.
And environmentally speaking, Tacoma solid waste officials say, that’s a good thing.
“But it’s not really saving us money,” noted Gary Kato, assistant solid waste division manager. “That really wasn’t the aim. What it really provides is environmental benefits, and it extends the life of the landfill.”
The cost-savings piece of the city’s overarching plan to reduce garbage volumes begins next week, with the rollout of an every-other-week garbage collection schedule. Customers along some of the Monday pickup routes in the North and West ends started receiving their new, bigger garbage cans this week.
Tentative estimates peg Tacoma’s savings from $900,000 to $1.4 million annually, mostly by eliminating five employees and five trucks.
“But we won’t know for sure how much we’ll save until we try it out citywide,” said Mike Slevin, Tacoma’s director of Environmental Services.
The try-out Slevin speaks of is poised to go live, thanks largely to results from a six-month pilot project that experimented with food recycling and every-other-week garbage collection.
Data collected from August 2011 to February 2012 during a pilot study involved 1,400 Tacoma garbage customers along routes in the North and West ends and in South Tacoma. It found pilot customers diverted 10 percent more household waste than non pilot customers whose trash remained on a weekly collection schedule during the same period.
“Garbage went down about the same amount that the yard waste went up,” Slevin said of the pilot’s findings. “And the yard waste increase is indicative of the food waste that’s now going into the recycling bin.”
Since food waste recycling went citywide following the pilot project, the city’s waste “diversion” rate – the amount of city refuse that is diverted from trash cans to recycling bins – has climbed from 50 percent to 53 percent, statistics show.
Tacoma’s overall garbage volume dropped by 7 percent from 2011 to 2012, falling from about 43,000 tons to 40,000 tons. At the same time, yard waste recycling spiked 8 percent, up from about 26,000 tons to 28,000 tons.
But, with a $350,000 one-time start-up cost for the food composting program, and about a $270,000 increase in the city’s yard waste recycling costs because of the higher volumes, any savings realized by reducing the city’s slightly-more-costly hauls to the garbage dump in Graham versus the compost facility in Puyallup likely have been offset.
“It’s basically a wash,” Kato said.
Officials noted that while the citywide food composting figures haven’t attained the levels experienced in the pilot study, they think that’s partly because twice-monthly trash collection has yet to be launched citywide. Under the pilot, both programs worked simultaneously.
“We hope there’s a bump when every-other-week kicks in,” Kato said.
The city’s every-other-week trash collection starts Monday for those North and West End customers who received new cans this week and is set to be phased in to all 54,000 solid waste customers citywide through year’s end.
City officials say about 25 percent of customers remain vehemently opposed to the new collection program.
“I think that people are understandably skeptical,” Kato said. “It’s a big change.”
Every-other-week garbage collection – or EOW, as its known in city circles – is one in a series of strategies being employed by Tacoma to help eventually achieve an overarching goal: Increasing recycling of Tacoma’s waste to 70 percent by 2030.
Over time, the move toward increased recycling will help stabilize customers’ garbage rates, officials said.
With Tacoma’s own landfill now closed, the city sends most of its trash to the LRI landfill on 304th Street in Graham. But under an agreement with Pierce County, the city must reduce its waste stream and increase recycling.
Toward that end, the city dumped its cost-per-pick-up garbage rate model five years ago, replacing it with a volume-based rate that rewards recycling.
“So the less garbage you have, the less it costs you,” Slevin explained.
It now costs the city about $49 to $54 per ton to dump its garbage at the LRI landfill, depending on fuel costs. By comparison, it costs the city only about $35 to $40 per ton to process food/yard waste recycling at LRI’s compost facility in Puyallup – a much shorter haul with about $3 less in tipping fees per load.
The city’s other recycling goes to Waste Management facility on the Tideflats, where it costs the city about $24 per ton for processing. And in return, the city gets money back for the value of recycled material, which is market-based. In the past three years, those revenues have ranged from $38 per ton in 2009, to $110 per ton in 2011.
A big part of the pilot’s food-recycling success came after solid waste staff members conducted informational “knock-and-talks” – face-to-face conversations with customers on their doorsteps. Afterward, overall food recycling volumes, which had climbed only modestly, sharply increased and garbage volumes dropped. Both rates then held steady.
“The knock-and-talks worked so well that we’re going to employ the same strategy when (every-other-week goes) citywide,” Slevin said. “We’re going to send out the fliers first, then we’ll distribute the new cans. But then, after about a month, we’re going to go to every door and talk to people.”
Mirroring national trends, curbside audits show 25 percent to 30 percent of the waste in a typical Tacoma household’s garbage can is food waste that can be composted. City officials hope that, with the new programs in place, overall “waste diversion” will match the 10 percent increase experienced during the pilot program. Then, over time, as customers become more used to the program and get better at recycling, the hope is the rate will climb even higher.
“If we got to 25 percent, we’d be ecstatic,” Slevin said. “But the fact that we got 10 percent in the pilot on the rollout, that’s very encouraging. To get that much change citywide would be great.”