Tacoma residents soon could recycle glass in the same blue container as plastic, cardboard and other materials, instead of having to keep them separated.
The city’s solid waste division wants to implement a commingled recycling program, which is expected to save the city time and money, in 2017, according to division manager Gary Kato. It also could encourage more people to recycle their glass by making doing so a little easier.
Kato said a City Council committee and eventually the full council still need to review and sign off on the idea.
A growing number of jurisdictions, including King County, have single-stream recycling, he said.
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“We keep the glass separate, and so the big deal with that is when it’s just a blue can out there, our drivers can pick it up like a garbage can with the automated arm and don’t have to leave the truck,” Kato said. “If there is glass out there, because it’s a separate container we have to go out there and manually dump it into a bin, so it makes the whole process a lot less efficient.”
Including glass in the big recycle bin would allow the city to reduce two recycling routes. In addition to a yearly cutback of 4,000 operational hours, the city would save $80,000 a year in truck purchases and $200,000 a year in labor costs, Kato said. Even more savings would result from using less fuel and maintaining fewer vehicles, he said.
The change also could allow apartment dwellers, most of whom have to choose between throwing their glass away or taking it to a recycling center, to recycle glass at home.
But there are potential drawbacks.
Glass mixed in with cardboard, metal and plastic can contaminate everything in the recycling stream if the glass breaks, which can easily happen when the automated arm lifts the container and dumps all its contents into the truck, Kato said. Broken glass can damage equipment in the recycling plant, too.
Getting more people to recycle their glass is good, said Councilman Ryan Mello, but the city should evaluate whether commingling will undermine the goal.
“If that glass breaks or that glass is dirty or if there’s liquid in the glass and it contaminates the paper, those are examples of how the recycling stream, once it’s commingled, it can damage the rest of the waste stream,” said Mello, who is executive director of the Pierce Conservation District. “We need to evaluate to continue to balance convenience with actually making the stuff recyclable at the end of the day.”
Right now, the city’s glass is taken to a glass manufacturing plant in Seattle, Kato said. When commingled, the glass would go to the same processor the city uses for other recyclables. That processor would decide what to do with the glass.
It’s rare that glass from single-stream recycling is as clean or high quality as glass that’s kept separate, said Susan Collins, executive director of the California-based Container Recycling Institute.
Tacoma residents might want to know if the final destination of their glass will change with the new process, she said.
“If the use of material is going to change, that’s something the community might want to weigh in on — they might say no, we’d like to keep separate glass collection because we like it when our glass gets used to make new glass bottles,” as opposed to possibly being crushed up and put in landfills, she said.
The city has seen gains the past few years in how much it recycles. Some of that is attributable to its 2013 move to every-other-week garbage collection, Kato said: Less waste is ending up in landfills, and more is being diverted to recycling and yard waste.
Before every-other-week collection began in 2013, the city collected 29,800 tons of garbage through the third quarter of 2012, he said. In the first three quarters of 2016, the city collected 27,000 tons of garbage, a 9 percent drop.
Residential recycling has increased by 8 percent, Kato said, and the city has seen a slight uptick in residents composting their food waste: In 2009, 32.1 percent of the city’s residential garbage stream was food waste. In 2015, that dropped to 28.1 percent, a difference of 4,465 tons.
Cutting back collection to every other week has saved more than $160,000 a year in fuel costs, more than $200,000 in vehicle maintenance costs and $138,000 per year in truck purchases, as well as more than $500,000 a year for labor, because five collection routes were eliminated, Kato said.
A move to commingled glass recycling would help save more money, he said.
“I think for us it’s not that much of a deal to increase or decrease recycling,” Kato said, “it’s more to be more efficient on the collection side.”