Tacoma’s recycling reset worth the extra cost

When Tacoma residents see their recycling bill go up $3.40 a month this year along with a reduction in services, we caution them not to blame city government. There are larger forces at work.

The latest trade disputes between the U.S. and China aren’t just about steel, aluminum and agricultural goods; they’re also about paper, plastic and glass. Disruptions in the international recycling market have found their way to our backyard, or rather, our curbsides.

Members of this editorial board are the first to balk at proposals, such as the one given by the city’s Environmental Services Department to a Tacoma City Council study session this week that suggest residential recycling customers pay more for less service, but the recycling world is in crisis; not just here, but in municipalities across the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans recycle almost 70 million tons of material annually, and up until last January, there was a market it. But China, a country that once purchased two-thirds of the world’s recycling, recently slammed its doors to “foreign garbage,” claiming their own environment was suffering due to processing.

Global politics have come home to roost: Tacoma once had a net surplus from collected recycled material, now the city is looking at a net deficit of $1.9 million. It’s no wonder they’re calling for a “Recycling Reset,” which is a nice way of saying, “Someone has to pick up the tab for this sudden expense.”

Desperate times call for innovation and reinvention. Enter the proposed surcharge of $3.40 each month. The Tacoma City Council is expected to vote on it in July. If it goes through, it will be in place through 2020 and will exempt low-income customers. The alternative, to scrap recycling entirely, is unacceptable.

Credit goes to the city for soliciting public feedback before making any changes. An online survey and input from focus groups gave Tacoma residents a few options to consider: City dwellers could maintain their curbside co-mingled recycling service with only minor adjustments; they could stop curbside glass collection and be provided with satellite recycle centers, or they could add a $3.40 surcharge per customer per month to cover the increased cost to improve customer recycling education.

All of the options require learning new recycling habits and that will take outreach. Since the city can’t put “No more shredded paper. No more plastic bags” in skywriting, the new rules will have to make their way to customers through costlier means.

The most important message the city wants to get across is that recyclables need to be clean, empty and dry; if not, they’re better off in the landfill, so says Tacoma’s Environmental Services director Mike Slevin.

Slevin told the editorial board the days of “feel good” recycling are over. The new mantra is “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Lewis Griffith, the city’s Solid Waste Management division manager says Tacoma’s contamination rate is lower than most neighboring cities; it hovers around 10 percent, but even so, sorting the 16,000 tons of recyclable material Tacoma collects each year is expensive.

Even with a reduction in services, we don’t expect Tacoma to slow down on recycling. We are, after all, the city that pioneered curbside recycling back in 1990. Sure, many will miss filling up the blue bins and dragging their glass to the curb, but you can bet the city’s proposed drop-off boxes and satellite recycling centers will be bustling.

If this recycling model sounds familiar, it’s because Pierce County is doing the same thing. Uniformity between the city and the county just makes sense. It certainly eliminates confusion on what can and can’t be recycled between neighborhoods.

China’s closed doors may open others in greener technologies. Plastic water bottles, which take 1,000 years to decompose, are already being turned into household furnishings, footwear and other goods. But until we’re all walking around clothed in last year’s beverage containers, we’re going to have to pay more to keep material out of landfills.

Of course the ultimate solution is to cut back on as much waste as possible.

Kermit the frog had it right when he sang, “It’s not easy being green.” He could have also added, “It isn’t cheap, either.”