Salvaging Tacoma’s recycling program to require fees and changes to what goes in the bin

No one wants your discarded pizza boxes, and they never did.

That’s just the start of some hard lessons Tacoma residents need to learn as the city grapples with its recycling program as the recyclables market tightens restrictions on what it will and won’t accept.

The city faces $1.9 million annually in unbudgeted expenses for curbside recycling as costs rise both at the landfill and for selling recyclables in a more restrictive market, according to an Environmental Services Department report.

In response, changes are coming for what’s taken at the curb for residential recycling customers. Glass, for instance, is on the outs.

While noting it was “an awkward moment” for recycling efforts, Environmental Services director Mike Slevin said during a City Council study session Tuesday this is a valuable time to change course.

“This is a national and global issue,” Slevin said.


According to the city’s Solid Waste Management “Recycling Reset” report, changes in the global recycling industry “were spurred primarily by problems with the materials becoming contaminated both by non-recyclable materials and by cross-contamination from recyclable materials that cannot be effectively sorted into the proper material streams.”

“After many years of calling for reductions in contamination, China closed their doors to imports of most of the materials that they previously accepted, creating a decrease in global demand that hurt the recycling economy,” the report stated.

To counter the industry headwinds, a new recycling surcharge of $3.40 a month is proposed, along with service changes and a new educational outreach so everyone understands why this is happening.

The plan recommends waiving the surcharge for low-income customers already on existing billing assistance. The surcharge would be in place through 2020 and be evaluated during the city’s next budget cycle.

The plan adds plastic bags and shredded paper to the rejection list, as Pierce County already does.

There would be no changes to commercial recycling rates.

The plan also calls for eliminating curbside glass pickup, switching instead to customers taking their glass to drop-off boxes and satellite recycling centers.

According to figures cited in Tuesday’s presentation, there are myriad problems with the glass collection, including taking into account emissions with collection trucks, the costs and employee injury risk.

The plan must be approved by members of the City Council, who acknowledged it’s going to be a tough sell for customers to pay more and lose the curbside glass collection.

What about the emissions caused by customers driving to the satellite facilities?

While there’s no specific answer to that, switching to the unmanned glass drop-off stations would save the city more than $500,000 a year, according to the department’s report.


The problem is bigger than Tacoma or your own struggle of figuring out what goes in the trash vs. recycling.

For all the bans on plastic bags and utensils, there is still too much for U.S. facilities to process.

“I understand the crisis here, and I think we’ve really had our heads in the sand, out of sight out of mind,” council member Lillian Hunter said. Hunter noted that when China changed its policies on what it would accept, “I don’t know if I ever knew that or didn’t want to know that.”

Touring a recycling center gave her further cause for concern on the problems facing the system.

“As someone who likes to think I do my bit ... it was an eye opener,” she said.

There’s also the problem with contamination.

What qualifies as contamination in recycling? Two categories contribute: Things that might gum up the sorting machines and things that are soiled, painted or have some type of coating.

Greasy pizza boxes contaminate because of the oil. Other items listed as not recyclable on Tacoma’s current guidelines online: Paper towels; napkins; coffee cups; paper plates; wet, greasy, or soiled paper; paper with wax or plastic coating. Also, food wrap, plastic container lids, drink cups and their lids, straws, clam shell or take-out containers.

Broken glass, windows, light bulbs, bakeware, glass dishes, mirrors, ceramics, vases, drinking glasses, eyeglasses also are prohibited.

Another issue is confusion among residents on what’s accepted and what’s not.

Instead of “when in doubt, toss it out,” many customers try to recycle items that contaminate the load.

“Aspirational” recycling, or assuming things are recyclable that are not, is one problem the city has previously targeted in efforts to reduce what goes mistakenly to recycling or directly to the landfill (the correct option, but still bad). Last fall, Tacoma launched a campaign to encourage people to not use paper coffee cups at local shops.

Olympia Coffee Roasting in Proctor, in one example highlighted in the Tacoma’s report, reported a 65 percent increase of people using reusable mugs, saving 153 cups a week.

On the other end of the spectrum are those not participating in curbside recycling.

According to figures from the city’s Solid Waste Management, 2.7 percent of Tacoma’s residential curbside customers don’t have recycling bins.

That works out to be 1,492 customers.

The biggest concern raised at the Tuesday study session: The changes and surcharge would unintentionally add to that number and that the messaging needed to empower people to see the need and to see it as a “reset.”

“When the message is ‘recycling right,’ the unspoken message is you’ve been doing it all wrong ... you’re going to get some recalcitrants,” Hunter said.

Council member Ryan Mello concurred and was among those who mentioned the need for changing consumer habits as well as calling for industry changes in terms of packaging.

That second part is harder, Mello noted, but it still needs attention.

“Tacoma is not going to change packaging alone,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how important the education component of this surcharge is.”

He maintained that the surcharge could be tweaked in the future if people get better at recycling.

“We can change policies and change rules, but if we don’t educate our public to change behavior, then we’re just throwing good money after bad,” Mello said. “The education component of this proposal is absolutely essential to having any sort of success.”

All of the discussion comes on the heels of a renewed focus worldwide on plastics, notably plastic bags.

Just this week, Greenpeace issued a report that U.S. grocery retailers nationwide are not winning the battle against single-use plastics, and Canada this week announced a single-use plastics ban by 2021.

Tacoma was ahead of the curve on that issue, implementing its changes in the summer of 2017.

“Fundamentally I believe recycling is a good thing,” Slevin said. “With this reset, it connects us back to the markets and being able to insure that the items you are collecting are the right items to collect to be reused and to reduce carbon footprint.”

“Until China shut down taking a lot of this, there was not a lot of public will to tell the public, no we’re not going to take that because it doesn’t make sense. So now we’re forced to take a look at that,” he said.

“This crisis has put it to the forefront, and has brought that sense of urgency to allow us to reset our program on how we pick things up and understand the true cost of recycling and the true benefits.”

Pierce County

Similar changes, such as changing what was accepted, recently were put in place with Pierce County’s recycling efforts in a process that took about six months to implement, according to the county.

“We began discussions in October 2018,” Sheryl Rhinehart, public information specialist with the county’s Planning and Public Works team, told The News Tribune via email. “Staff met with the hauling and disposal companies that operate in Pierce County’s service area. We also discussed our proposed changes with Pioneer Recycling, the company in Frederickson where the majority of the recyclables collected are processed.”

Those recommendations were then presented at December’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee meeting. The changes met the minimum required service levels for the county’s residential recycling standards, “so no legislative or administrative changes were required,” she said.

Rhinehart said the feedback from customers had been “mostly positive,” but the county did receive “more than 1,000 requests for updated reminder magnets and posters.”

“We find most people just want to do it right and want it to be easy to understand.”

Tacoma faces a different time line. After spending the past several months working on the plan through outreach, a survey, committee and staff work, the ordinance tentatively is scheduled go to the council by July 23, with implementation by Oct. 1.

Mayor Victoria Woodards said at the close of the discussion Tuesday that the effort and community engagement are well worth it.

“There is a lot of education to be done; a little bit that needs to happen with those who already recycle, but there’s whole lot needs to happen with those who don’t recycle” to understand “clearly what the effects are,” Woodards said.

“Recycling is not difficult.”

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