Matt Driscoll

No curbside glass recycling? An extra cost? Whatever, Tacoma needs to embrace changes

Tacoma Recycling Center

Changes in China's acceptable recycled material is putting a crimp on recycling in America, including the Tacoma Recycling Center in Tacoma, Washington.
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Changes in China's acceptable recycled material is putting a crimp on recycling in America, including the Tacoma Recycling Center in Tacoma, Washington.

Getting less and paying more.

Any way you slice it, the recommendations from Tacoma city staff on how to “reset” the city’s recycling program — including charging customers $3.40 more every month while eliminating curbside glass pickup — are going to be a tough sell.

That includes the City Council, as was evident when members grappled — often awkwardly — with the recommendations during a recent study session.

To be certain, the hesitation and consternation expressed by some on the council is likely to mirror the sentiments with some in the general public.

Why?

During extensive public outreach, Tacoma residents expressed an altruistic willingness to pay more for recycling and fund education. Bless their hearts.

What they didn’t sign off on was axing curbside glass pickup altogether.

With the council ultimately having the final say, the apprehension many exhibited was to be expected. Even in the face of $1.9 million in yearly unbudgeted expenses for the city’s current recycling program, a decision won’t come easily.

Here’s what should be clear to the council and even to someone — like me — who was initially skeptical of the plan:

As hard as it might be to stomach and as confusing as it might seem, the recommendation to end curbside glass recycling and replace it with glass recycling drop-off locations throughout the city is the only one that makes sense.

The reason is simple. We recycle because of the positive environmental impact, and the city’s curbside glass recycling program — as much as I like it — no longer makes sense.

That’s especially true as we confront the most pressing environmental challenge of our lifetime, man-made climate change.

“We’re not saying it’s a bad idea to recycle glass. We just need to rethink the system,” Lewis Griffith, the city’s Solid Waste Management division manager, recently explained to The News Tribune. Griffith expressed optimism that glass recycling drop-off locations can be part of the solution.

“The way we’re collecting glass,” Griffith added, “doesn’t make sense, from the emissions standpoint.”

That standpoint matters.

Taking a step back, there are a number of reasons why Tacoma needs to revamp its recycling system. The most obvious is because changes in the global recycling market have made it much more difficult for Tacoma to sell its plastic recyclables to the places currently relied on to take them (which is one reason why we should develop domestic processing options).

Complicating matters, we’re not great at recycling — filling our blue bins with contaminated items like greasy pizza boxes, caked peanut butter jars and a bunch of other stuff that mucks up the machinery. Foreign markets — like China — have significantly reduced the amount of contaminated recyclables they’ll accept, and it’s put us in a bind.

Simply put, we need a process that’s easier to understand. We need more education. And — ultimately — we need more compliance.

Which is why recycling in Tacoma has gone from a small money maker or break-even proposition to a significant financial drain. That’s what’s created the need for a surcharge.

The curbside glass recycling conundrum is unique and worth considering on its own.

According to Griffith, the city’s curbside program was evaluated through a number of different lenses to gauge its efficiency, the most important being the amount of carbon emissions it reduces. Initially, I had my doubts about weighing the evaluation so heavily in this direction, but Griffith makes a compelling case — which is probably why he’s paid to think about these things and I’m paid write about them.

Here’s what we know: For every six tons of recycled glass the city collects, about one ton of carbon is reduced. To do this work, the city uses three or four dedicated trucks to pick up glass from Tacoma’s curbs.

In total, the city collects about 1,600 to 1,800 tons of glass every year.

So Griffith did the math, concluding that — in total, once you account for the city’s own emissions — Tacoma’s glass recycling program “almost sort of balanced out,” reducing less than four dozen tons of carbon each year, with “emissions kind of a wash.”

That’s not a lot of bang for the city’s buck. The city spends about $600,000 to $700,000 a year alone on curbside glass recycling. That’s money that will be saved if we do away with it.

By comparison, Griffith said the city’s co-mingled curbside recycling program reduces about 46,000 tons of carbon each year.

“We’ve been aware for some time that this is not the most efficient operation,” Griffith said of curbside glass recycling.

Skeptics — again, like I originally was — will point out that there are benefits beyond carbon reduction to glass recycling. Unlike plastic, which when recycled often finds a second life as throwaway plastic junk, old bottles become new bottles when recycled. As Griffith acknowledged, this cuts down on the use of raw materials and reduces the amount of glass that ends up in our landfill.

Both of those are worthy goals — which is why, with glass drop-off locations, no one is proposing doing away with glass recycling in Tacoma entirely.

At the same time, glass is made from sand, and when compared to putting plastic into the landfill — which often takes hundreds of years to biodegrade — the environmental toll doesn’t come close.

“If the reason that we recycle is to help the environment, and our number one environmental challenge is climate change and greenhouse gasses, then sending three or four trucks out every day to serve the city doesn’t make sense,” Griffith said.

Griffith added that, to really make the proposed changes pay off and limit additional carbon emissions, people will need to plan their trips to glass drop off locations strategically, combining them with errands they would already be running.

“I think we should recycle glass because there is an environmental benefit,” Griffith said. “But we should collect it in a way that has less impact.”

Change can be difficult. The same goes for paying more and getting less.

Faced with the alternative, however, it’s time for Tacoma to embrace both with its glass recycling program.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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