Starting in 1987, the City of Seattle faced a crisis in managing its increasing quantities of solid waste. With 686,695 tons of waste being generated, only 24 percent was being recycled. The traditional solution of landfilling was becoming expensive and complicated. In response, the City's Solid Waste Utility devised an innovative, integrated approach towards management of the City's waste stream, placing primary emphasis on the goals of waste reduction and recycling. The objectives of the program were to reduce the volume and toxicity of generated waste, maximize the amount of material recycled, encourage citizen participation in waste reduction, and stabilize solid waste rates. Based on available data, this program has proven to date to be one of the most effective municipal initiatives in Seattle's history and has attracted considerable national and international attention.
Targeting the entire home-owning community of Seattle (about 390,000 people), the broad scope of this program includes sixteen separate but independently organized initiatives. Some of these include: curbside recycling of paper, glass, plastic, and cans; curbside pickup of yard waste; free or discount recycling for special items (scrap wood, scrap metals, and vehicle batteries); program marketing and advertising; and a system for billing based on the amount of garbage produced. The city has designed a special rate structure that incrementally charges consumers for additional waste cans. Ratepayers pay an additional $108 a year for the weekly pickup of a second can. These costs have greatly reduced the amount of average waste generated per household from three and half cans in 1980 to one can in 1989.
Additionally, the program includes various technical innovations, the main one being an economic model adopted from the electric industry. Labeled the "Recycling Potential Assessment," it created one of the first governmental forecasts of garbage production and waste stream usage. By comparing costs for garbage incineration versus recycling, the assessment provided the economic justification for this project.
To date, the Seattle program has resulted in a significant reduction in the volume and toxicity of waste going to the landfill. Currently, 44 percent of the City's waste is being recycled (from 24 percent two years earlier) and garbage tonnage sent to the landfill declined by 58,600 (22 percent) from 1988 to 1989. Due to the program's exclusive focus on customer service, a large citizen commitment to the environment has been attained almost overnight. Around 78 percent of eligible residences have signed up for the curbside recycling program and 60 percent for yard waste pick-up service.
With these successes, the Solid Waste Utility has received requests for information about its programs from officials in all 50 US states. Needless to say, the staff has been generous in disseminating information on its practices. They have hosted visitors from 14 states, 12 foreign countries, and the U.S. Senate staff; published seven articles in the national solid waste literature; and fielded hundreds of phone calls and inquiries about their program. The high level of interest from public officials just goes to show the difficulties facing municipal governments regarding solid waste management. The Seattle Recycling Program, through its simple ideas, addresses these difficulties in a proactive and productive manner.