The Six Million Dollar Trash Can

Seattle could save big with biweekly garbage pickup.
Dave Knapik, flickr

Dave Knapik, flickr

Here’s an easy way for Seattle to save millions of dollars: switch from once-a-week garbage collection to once-every-two-weeks garbage collection. The change would also yield a small environmental benefit. Here’s how.

Right now, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), the city-owned utility that manages waste disposal services, has three collection categories: garbage and organics (yard waste and food)—which are collected every week—and recycling, which is collected every two weeks. By switching garbage collection to a biweekly schedule SPU would save $5.6 million per year in reduced collection payments to contractors. Plus, those savings would actually increase over time as inflation nudges up the cost of collection contracts.

In addition, the utility would save about $700,000 per year in utility tax avoidance and around $100,000 per year in waste disposal savings. It’s in this last category where the environmental benefit comes in. Experts believe that in a biweekly garbage collection scenario, single family customers will divert more of their food waste from the garbage to the organics bin. SPU would still need to pay for processing the food waste into compost, but that’s cheaper than sending the food waste to a landfill. In other words, the utility can save $100,000 per year when customers turn more of their food waste into compost.

Collectively, the savings add up to $6.4 million.

There are, however, some small one-time start up costs. SPU estimates that it would need to lay out $400,000 for outreach, customer service, and implementation, plus somewhere between $1 and $2 million for new waste containers that would presumably be distributed gratis to utility customers. In total, the one-time costs could be as high as $2.4 million, which would mean a net savings of only $4 million in the first year — though that figure would rise to $6.4 million (plus inflation) in future years.

There’s one other wrinkle too. The utility taxes are levied by the city, which means the $700,000 in tax savings would essentially come out of the city’s general fund revenue. In aggregate then, the net benefit to the city is a bit smaller, around $5.7 million. But that’s still a heap of money.

As it turns out, Seattle is planning a pilot project of biweekly garbage collection in select neighborhoods starting in 2012. If officials decide to go for it citywide, the switch would probably not be implemented until 2014.

That’s good news, but it would be better to get this program started sooner. Plenty of SPU customers are cash-strapped right now. If the $6.4 million savings can protect residents from rate increases—or perhaps targeted rate reduction for low-income folks—it’s worth doing in a hurry.

Thanks to Tim Croll at Seattle Public Utilities who provided detailed information with remarkable speed and clarity.

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  1. eldan says:

    I’m not sure about this. It’s been tried in Britain, and is widely hated. There’s two specific things that worry me about it [though I should make clear that this has all happened since I left the country, so I’m reliant on newspaper babble and can’t really tell how justified either complaint is]:

    On the one hand, I hear there’s a legitimate complaint that this leads to a lot more trash ending up on the street, because people just aren’t good at complying with a more complicated schedule than “put your trash out on this day every week”, and rats & seagulls get in. On the other, it seems to have been a significant lightning-rod for complaints about “econazism”, etc, and I think the last thing we need is to give people another reason to hate us.

    I also wonder, though I haven’t heard complaints of this happening, if doing this would increase the amount of non-recyclable waste in the recycling collection.

  2. Matt the Engineer says:

    Sounds good to me. I currently use the wastebasket-sized bin, which can be annoying when I have a large piece of garbage (I threw away a worn-out thick rubber doormat* the other day that I had to dispose of creatively). I could upsize to something twice that size for bi-weekly pickup.

    * Then again, you really don’t think about how wasteful things like this are until you have to fill your little garbage can with it which is right next to your large compost and recycle bins.

  3. jonesey says:

    Some cities offer an option of every-other-week collection, which saves money for the customers, but which doesn’t save much for the garbage hauler, I imagine, since the trucks still need to drive the whole route every week.

    If the program is designed well, it could reduce the amount of garbage people generate, or at least the amount that ends up in the curbside garbage container. Rathje and Cullen’s excellent 1992 book Rubbish contains a great story (with evidence) about how people on a flat per-month payment plan (rather than a per-bag or other by-volume plan) fill their garbage containers, no matter how large they are. Every other week with the same sized container that people have now could result in a lot less garbage and more recycling and composting.

  4. Jeffrey Showman says:

    For a decade, the City of Olympia has collected trash and recycling on alternate weeks, so the city can use the municipal collection fleet more efficiently. Seattle may be constrained by having separate contracts for each type of trash.

  5. karen says:

    I use the smallest garbage bin and only need to put it out every other week at most (which is good, because I sometimes forget). I also produce very little recycling and compost. Yet, my bi-monthly bill is still $100 (including water & sewer, a separate topic). I really wish there was an incentive to conserve. If there was a cheap rate for “extreme conserving,” then people could still choose to pay more for more frequent pick-up. This would address the “eco-nazism” concern.

  6. audrey says:

    assume for businesses/multifamily it would stay more often

  7. Rodd Pemble says:

    Bellingham and Whatcom County have had monthly and every other week residential garbage service options for twenty years. Less than 35% of our customers still choose weekly service. Concerns about rats or odors with stretched out collection simply have not materialized – the Health Department has not received a single complaint about our FoodPlus! program despite every other week collection. Most customers have a 60-gallon garbage cart and 3 bin recycling (paper, cans/glass/plastic, news, cardboard, scrap metal, vehicle batteries, and used motor oil). Over 6,000 have signed up for a second 60-gallon cart for our every other week FoodPlus! program – yard waste, food scraps, and food-soiled paper. Many of those customers dropped their garbage to once a month, with the savings covering the cost of adding FoodPlus! at their home. Our customers pay for what they use on the garbage and FoodPlus! programs – if you create less garbage, and recycle and compost more, you can downsize your service and pay less. We even have a “Super Recycler” rate for a 30-gallon garbage can once a month, which still includes weekly recycling, all for less than $7.50 per month.

    With good education, I think Seattle will find this change can be accomplished with much less fuss than some are projecting.

  8. Georgie Bright Kunkel says:

    Right on. Many years ago most every city collection was
    minimal and my telephone bill was $2.19 a month.
    I rarely have anything in my garbage can as I recycle everything.
    It is a waste to have the high tech truck with the automatic
    lift come to empty my little plastic bag of garbage. sometimes my garbage can is completely empty.

    Except for yard clippings my food waste is minimal and the huge dumpsters are sitting there cluttering up my side yard. I wondered if I could share garbage collection with a neighbor but that is not allowed.

  9. Kelly says:

    Another option is to drastically reduce the amount of trash that goes into the landfill. A new waste management system called The Muncher can transform 1 ton of organic waste into 600 lbs of compost and liquid effluent in 1 hour – compared to 45 days-1 year for traditional composting. This rich and highly effective compost could then be sold. The system can handle inorganic materials as well – everything but metals and ceramic.

    This aerobic system produces no methane or toxic gases (it does produce CO2) and can potentially divert thousands of tons of waste from landfills. Designed to complement recycling programs, the founders of the company are in talks with several major cities, waste management companies and private industry.

    Check out for more info.

  10. Andrew says:

    Don’t forget the reduced emissions / noise / hazard from that trash truck cruising your neighborhood less often.

  11. Dr. Graeme Gibson, D.C. says:

    While I respect Rodd Pemble’s comments about Whatcom country, I am unsure if he understands the already massive rat problem that Seattle has.

    Rat populations increase mating as food becomes more widely available. Making the available source larger and available for a longer time would be a terrible idea, and not worth the savings.

    While many people are not talking about it, or aware, but the rat population in Magnolia has exploded following the increase in composting. Yes composting is awesome. Rats love it as well.

    As an exterminator once said to me,

    “There are two types of people in Seattle. Those who have rats, and those who don’t know they have rats.”

  12. Mossy Hiker says:

    We are lucky that Seattle already allows us to compost all food, meat, dairy, dirty napkins, etc. in our yard waste collected EVERY week. If everyone put all those items in their yard/kitchen waste, there would be NOTHING smelly left in our garbage. Then we’re free to save millions only having to pick up garbage every TWO weeks.

    Seattle did sign onto the Kyoto Accord as a city devoted to carbon reduction. Let’s walk our talk by composting all possible items so it doesn’t have to be landfilled at great expense.

    Thanks for posting this article spelling out how much money Seattle can save when we compost everything we can.

    – Janine

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