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Recycling surcharge still headed to Tacoma, but at lower rate in new proposal

A proposed surcharge to help offset the costs for Tacoma’s recycling program is on track to be implemented at a slightly lower amount than first thought.

For that, thank all the new people who’ve moved to Tacoma in the past year.

In response to questions about the surcharge change, a city official told The News Tribune via email that approximately 1,000 new residential accounts have been added to Tacoma’s customer base since his department’s initial estimates, which were based on a count from about a year ago. It recently updated its recommendations for a City Council study session in August.

That’s according to Preston Peck, a project specialist with the city’s Environmental Services Department.

“That meant that (Solid Waste Management) could spread the surcharge across more customers, lowering the surcharge for customers and generating the same amount of money,” Peck said.

The matter will get its first ordinance reading at council Oct. 22, with a final reading for approval expected the following week.

The reason for a new surcharge at all? The higher costs of processing recycling amid a diminished demand after overseas’ markets sharply reduced what was accepted, or in some cases, stopped accepting any U.S. recycling material.

The recommended changes, according to the city, include:

Maintain residential curbside commingled recycling service, with minor adjustments — removing shredded paper and plastic bags from what’s accepted.

Stop curbside glass collection and provide satellite recycling centers and/or satellite glass drop-off boxes, saving the city $400,000 a year.

Add a $2.82 surcharge per customer per month to cover the increased costs of recycling and provide resources for more recycling education for customers. The education part would end in 2023.

The plan would waive the surcharge for the approximately 2,300 low-income customers who are in Tacoma Public Utilities and Environmental Services bill payment assistance programs.

The surcharge would be reviewed in the next budget cycle.

If approved by council, the surcharge would go into effect Jan. 1.

The surcharge now being presented is lower than $3.40 surcharge that was proposed earlier this year.

Peck noted: “SWM dropped from the $3.40/month surcharge with $1.00 of that going to education and outreach over two years, to a $2.82/month with $0.50 going toward education and outreach over four years. So, either way the surcharge will generate approximately $1.3 million for education and outreach; it’s just spread out over a longer period of time.”

Tacoma, along with other U.S. cities, has been left to find ways to continue to offer recycling for residents while managing the higher costs amid a shrinking global market.

Pierce County enacted changes in April, which included no longer accepting shredded paper, paper milk and juice cartons and plastic plant pots.

The increase to go before Tacoma’s council is lower than those seen elsewhere in the area, according to a presentation on the city’s website. It listed the Pierce County average increase of $3.56 a month, Kitsap County’s average increase at $3.26 a month and Thurston County’s average increase at $3.61 a month.

Going beyond Tacoma, recycling issues also persist for other cities.

Seattle and King County announced they will no longer accept plastic bags in recycling starting next year. A statewide plastic bag ban may be taken up again next year by the state Legislature after not winning approval this year in the House.

Tacoma launched its own effort to reduce plastic bag usage in the city in 2017.

While Washington metros keep seeking ways to reduce recycling while continuing operations, some metros elsewhere in the U.S. have abandoned the initiative outright.

The New York Times reported in March that hundreds of cities and towns nationwide have canceled their recycling programs amid escalating costs.

Environmental Services Department Director Mike Slevin noted at the August study session that Tacoma works “with other cities and regional entities to try to get legislation passed to help with packaging control and to lessen packaging and get that message out.”

“That is a national effort. Most cities, most counties, most states are working more and more toward this,” Slevin said. “It’s not something we can control individually, obviously. And there are manufacturers out there that try to counter our lobbying efforts.

“So, the answer is, we work where we can in that to control it.”

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