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Seattle Considers Fining Residents For Failing To Compost

Put too many food scraps in the trash, and you could face a $1 fine under Seattle's new proposed curbside composting rules.
Put too many food scraps in the trash, and you could face a $1 fine under Seattle's new proposed curbside composting rules.

The city of Seattle might start fining residents who put food waste in the garbage instead of the compost bin -- the latest idea to push for better recycling rates.

Dozens of cities nationwide now give residents the option of putting their household food scraps in a curbside compost bin. Seattle is looking at making it a requirement.

The city is nearly 4 percent away from its goal of recycling 60 percent of its garbage by 2015 and the clock is ticking. So, city staff and Mayor Ed Murray are recommending new rules to close the gap, including enforcement of mandatory residential curbside composting.

Under Seattle's current curbside composting program, residents can put food scraps and compostable paper such as paper towels and pizza boxes in a curbside bin. The compost is picked up weekly, just like the garbage. But instead of going to a landfill, the food waste goes to a composting facility to be recycled into a soil amendment.

Under the mandatory composting rule, which still has to be approved by the city council, garbage haulers would inspect the trash they collect at the curb and report any cans that contain 10 percent or more compostable food or paper. Those households would be fined a dollar for non-compliance. Owners of properties with Dumpsters would be held to the same standard but subject to a $50 fine for failing to compost.

Tim Croll, solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities, says the city needs an extra push if it's even going to have a chance of meeting its 2015 recycling goals.

The proposed rules also include a requirement for businesses to use all compostable food service ware by July, 2015. In addition, the city would do its own sorting of recyclables at drop off sites.

"What I would say is if we don't pursue these, there's no way we'll get to our goals by 2015," he said. "So, this gives us our best shot to do that."

Last year, Seattle recycled 56.2 percent of its garbage. That's up 0.5 percent from 2012, but the city needs a much bigger annual increase to reach its goal. Recycling in residential homes actually dipped 0.3 percent from 2012 to 2013 –- moving away from the goal.

About half of the food waste from residences and businesses is being composted, Croll said, "but there's so much food waste and compostable paper that we're going to have to move more of that out of the landfill and into the composting can."

The city already has a similar mandate for recycling other materials. If garbage haulers find too many recyclable items in a residential trash can, they leave the full can with a note asking the resident to remove the recyclable items. Croll says that rule has worked well.

"It's not real draconian," he said. "We don't have a big squad of garbage police or anything like that, but we are checking on a random basis, and people are responding to the reminders very much. We could see the increase in recycling just from having that requirement, so we're thinking in parallel terms for composting."

If approved by the city council, the rules would go into effect in January 2015, but they wouldn't be enforced for six months after that.

The city projects the new rules will cut the amount of waste going to landfills by 40,000 tons. That's beyond the 30,000 tons needed to meet the 2015 recycling goals. But Croll says the question is whether it will happen by the deadline.

"It's possible," he said. "A lot is going to depend on how much effort we put into education and promotion of this."

Croll says the city plans to spend $400,000 a year on education and marketing of the curbside composting rule for the first several years it's in effect.

The city of Portland is aiming for a 75 percent recycling rate by 2015 and, like Seattle, it's counting on curbside composting to help meet that goal.

But according to Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the city isn't considering enforcement of mandatory composting. It has a different strategy for encouraging people to separate their food scraps.

"We think we have a built-in mechanism that provides people with a strong incentive to get that material picked up on a weekly basis," Walker said.

In 2011, when Portland launched its curbside composting program, the city reduced trash pickups to every other week and increased compost bin pickups to once a week. Walker said initially a lot of people weren't happy about that. But residential garbage volumes dropped 37 percent and the recycling rate jumped from a little more than 50 percent to nearly 70 percent.

"We get a lot higher recovery of food scraps when there's an incentive to put it out in the green cart as opposed to maintaining your old habits and just putting it in the garbage," Walker said.

Croll said the city of Seattle considered reducing trash pickups, but polling showed about a third of Seattle residents oppose the idea.

"Folks were very iffy about that," Croll said.

In contrast, polling showed 75 of Seattle residents support enforcement of curbside composting while only 11 percent oppose the idea. Seattle also found that fining residents for failing to compost would reduce three times more garbage than switching to every other week trash pickup.

Walker says Portland has made good progress toward its recycling goals, but the city may still have gap similar to Seattle's to close by 2015. Rather than enforcing residential curbside composting, Walker says, Portland is looking to push for more composting at commercial businesses.

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