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City uses garbage threat to push recycling

Garbage hauler Frank Treto heads back to his collection truck after tagging a garbage bin that contained recyclable material in a Seattle neighborhood.Elaine Thompson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Garbage hauler Frank Treto quickly spots enough junk mail and cardboard to warrant whipping out a bright yellow warning tag, one of hundreds he’s doled out since the city’s mandatory recycling law took effect this year.

So far, no one’s given him any grief. “Not yet,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that. I’m going to see if I can get a bulletproof vest.”

Recycling has been required for more than a decade in communities with progressive reputations, such as Madison, Wis., and several Northeastern states — with varying degrees of success.

Seattle has had ample reason to brag since 1989, when it became one of the first cities in the country to start curbside pickup of newspaper, cardboard, aluminum cans, glass bottles and office paper. But in recent years, its recycling rate has dipped below 40 percent, down from a peak of 44 percent in 1995.

Goal of 60 percent
Most cities would probably envy that rate, well above the national average of about 27 percent, according to the State of Garbage in America, a report published last year by the recycling journal Biocycle. But it’s far from Seattle’s goal of 60 percent by the end of the decade.

So the City Council passed a mandatory recycling law that took effect Jan. 1, but penalties won’t be enforced until next year.

Starting in 2006, people in single-family homes won’t get their trash picked up if they dump “significant amounts” of recyclables in their trash, defined by the city as more than 10 percent by volume. Owners of apartments, condominiums and businesses will face $50 fines.

So far, city officials say few people have complained. Most calls have come from people wondering how to comply with the new standards.

“When you tell them what the story is, they say, ’Oh, OK,”’ said Tim Croll, community services director for Seattle Public Utilities, which runs the city’s garbage and recycling systems.

The city has budgeted $1.5 million for a three-year education campaign that began last year and includes mailers, how-to kits, a recycling hot line and friendly warning tags that open with “Why waste a good thing?”

In Madison, Wis., a liberal college town that embraced recycling enthusiastically when it began in 1991, a fine has never been imposed.

“Seventy percent of the population is going to walk across a bed of hot coals to recycle a bottle. They just do that. They believe in it,” said George Dreckmann, Madison’s recycling coordinator. More than 90 percent follow the law, and Dreckmann said it doesn’t make sense economically or practically to go after the few violators.

Connecticut's experience
Recycling has been mandatory in Connecticut since 1991. Requirements vary from city to city, and enforcement has been the biggest challenge, said Judy Beleval, an environmental analyst with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“Some towns are good at it. Some towns are not so good at it,” Beleval said. “In the beginning, most towns had a recycling coordinator. Over the years, because of budget cuts, that became the job of someone who was also doing 10 other things.”

Frank Gagliardo oversees recycling enforcement — in 169 cities and towns, home to 3.5 million people — for the Connecticut agency. “We sort of have to pick and choose our battles,” he said.

Last summer, Pittsburgh started fining residents who weren’t complying with a mandatory recycling law enacted in 1988 for large communities in Pennsylvania. As of late January, the city had issued about 660 tickets at $62.50 a pop. So far, no one’s been slapped with a second fine, a whopping $500.

“Every time someone calls and complains about the citation, they say, ’Well, I didn’t think you were serious,”’ said Guy Costa, Pittsburgh’s public works director. “Now they’re beginning to take us more seriously.”