Striving to reduce the trash it sends to landfills, Seattle has banned foam take-out containers and plastic bags, told residents they must recycle cardboard and compost food scraps, and set up a registry for people to opt-out of getting phonebooks.
Some city officials think the city can do even more: they're now weighing whether to stop picking up garbage from homes every week.
Switching to every-other-week garbage collection would save the city about $6 million a year, officials say, while reducing neighborhood truck traffic and potentially keeping an additional 1,400 tons of waste a year out of the landfill.
The city council is deciding whether to test the concept in about 800 single-family homes this summer. If the pilot project is successful, the idea may be rolled out citywide, making Seattle one of the largest U.S. cities to embrace the reduced pickups. A council committee vote is scheduled in May.
Seattleite Lori Friedman has mixed feelings about the idea, but feels the city should do a trial.
"The good part is that people will do a lot more recycling and be more thoughtful about it," she said. "The bad part, especially in the summer, is having stinky garbage (around)."
Most major U.S. cities including New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix collect trash every week. Portland, Ore., began less-frequent garbage collection last fall. Smaller cities in Washington state, such as Renton and Olympia, made the switch years ago. The city of Tacoma, south of Seattle, recently completed a pilot project and is weighing whether to move to every-other-week pickups.
In Seattle, the move would only nudge the city's annual recycling rate up by less than one percent. But the city has already tackled some of the biggest recycling issues, so this would help the city toward its goal of a 60 percent recycling rate, city solid waste director Tim Croll told councilmembers last week.
Seattle recycles about 53 percent of its trash, and diverts about 125,000 tons of food scraps and yard waste out of landfills each year. Residents currently put food scraps and yard waste in one bin, trash in another, and cardboard and other recyclable materials in a third bin.
Still, thousands of tons of material that could be recycled or composted are sent on mile-long trains to a landfill about 200 miles away, said Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin, who backs the bi-monthly trash pickup proposal. "There's lots of opportunity to increase efficiency."
Surveys show Seattle customers are divided, said Croll.
When Portland rolled out every-other-week trash service last fall, some were unhappy about the prospect of leaving dirty diapers and bags of pet poop in the garbage for more than a week. Others worried about reduced service, potential odor or vermin problems, or being forced to pay for larger bins to accommodate all their trash. The comedy show "Portlandia" even spoofed the city's many garbage and recycling bins.
"Some people aren't exactly doing cartwheels on every-other-week service, but we're seeing many, many people adapt, and the program appears to be working very well," said Bruce Walker, Portland's solid waste & recycling program manager.
"It was a big change, but people are clearly adapting. We've seen a big drop-off in garbage, as well as an increase in yard and compost," he added. The amount of garbage picked up during Portland's pilot project dropped by about 30 percent, and that seems to be the case now, Walker said.
When the city of Renton, south of Seattle, conducted a pilot project several years ago, public health investigators walked the neighborhoods to monitor for odor, rats and other issues and observed few problems, said Bill Lasby, solid waste and rodents supervisor for the public health agency for Seattle and King County.
The agency hasn't gotten many complaints about Renton's program. Seattle is in good position to do a pilot project, because residents already separate so much food scraps from their garbage and set it aside for weekly curbside pickup, which would continue, Lasby said.
"We see this is as part of a positive movement in Seattle toward zero waste," said Heather Trim, a leader Zero Waste Seattle, a coalition of environmental groups and citizens supporting the proposal. "If you're only taking out your trash every other week, you're going to want to make sure that you're not putting your food waste in with the garbage."
The city would give the 800 single-family homes participating in the trash test a one-time $100 stipend for their troubles; the neighborhoods haven't been selected yet. Ratepayers would save less than 10 percent, but can expect a 20 percent reduction in truck traffic through neighborhoods, officials said.
Robin Freedman with Waste Management, one of the nation's largest private garbage contractors, which handles garbage collection for Renton and parts of Seattle, said the company supports the effort. "In the end, it really supports waste reduction and increases recycling over time, and we support that," she said.
Seattle resident Bruce Danielson thinks he could squeeze two weeks of trash into his 20-gallon garbage can, but he wonders about problems with odor and animals breaking into garbage cans.
"If they can find a way to address the odor problem, with people leaving garbage out for an extra week, it would be a good way to save money," he said. "I'm sure willing to give it a shot."
Elta Ratliff and her family of five have embraced Seattle's recycling and composting ethos since they moved here from Atlanta two years ago. She loves the idea but would like to pay less if she receives less-frequent service.
The family uses the smallest trash bin offered by the city. It has bins for everything, making it easy to separate banana peels and cereal boxes from the plastics — like sandwich bags — that can't be recycled.
"The way Seattle does things is so fresh and progressive," she said.