by Brendan McGarry
- The Capitol Hill Times -
With the giving holidays behind us, many of our presents have left us with mounds of waste. Wading through the various recycling numbers, properly disposing of batteries, or even cleaning out that jar of unrecognizable sludge from the fridge, may seem troublesome. However, we should be recycling as much as we possibly can, even if only because resources are finite. Luckily, unlike many places in the country, Capitol Hill is well positioned for responsible waste disposal.
You’ll probably roll your eyes at bringing up the three “Rs,” but we all need a reminder. This isn’t just a sing-song phrase; this is a hierarchy. Reduce is first, Reuse is second, and Recycle is last. Reducing means lots of things, like buying less; reusing means putting leftovers in an old yogurt container; and recycling means that things with absolutely no other use are sent off to be reconstituted.
Our state is relatively good at recycling. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, we hover just above recycling 50 percent of our waste. In comparison, the national average in 2011 was 34.7 percent. We’ve wavered, dropping below a 2011 high to 50.7 percent, then to 50.1 percent in 2012, a result of 20,000 more tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated, and 90,000 tons less recycled.
Countrywide, of course, waste has been on the rise for some time. Nationally, the EPA has shown that Americans went from generating about 2.68 pounds of waste per person per day in 1960 to a plateau of around 4.5 pounds from 1990 to 2010. Of the 250 million tons of MSW generated nationally in 2010, only 85 million tons were composted or recycled. By all means, we need to continue to try to reduce our consumption, but better recycling is an attainable goal.
Some people don’t recycle, even in our city. A friend of mine mentioned that his apartment manager doesn’t provide his building with recycling and compost bins, and has rebuffed requests for them because they’d take up a parking space. This is startling. Recycling most household items is free to Seattle residents and reduces tax dollars for transportation of (recyclable) waste to land fills. More to the point, sorting your waste into the proper recycling bins is legally required. Ordinance 121372 states that “no paper, cardboard, glass or plastic bottles and jars, and aluminum or tin cans shall be deposited in the garbage.” Clearly, my friend needs to speak with the city, and this is just one excuse among many.
A more common complaint is not knowing what can be recycled; this is isn’t valid on the Hill. We have an excellent citywide program (http://www.seattle.gov/html/citizen/recycling.htm) striving to educate on proper waste disposal. As well, E-cycle Washington is a county program that helps recycle electronics, even partnering with retailers to collect our obsolete gadgets. We live in a city, county, and state that prioritizes responsible choices; there’s no excuse trashing a plastic bottle or your old cell phone.
In 2012, Washington State residents recycled 4.4 million tons of all manner of materials. Sounds good, but our 50.1 percent of recycled MSW isn’t great in comparison to Sweden’s 52 percent average. Of the stuff that we throw away in Seattle, about 25 percent is still recyclable or compostable. That’s a C average for one of the greenest cities in the country. The Department of Ecology is understandably enthusiastic because “per capita, disposal numbers are at their lowest in 24 years”, but Laura Davies, a manager of Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources Program, admits that “there is still work to do.”
Another way that we can reduce waste is to demand less packaging. Touting consumer choice may seem disenfranchising as a lone consumer; however, as you went around the Hill for holiday shopping, buying locally, you likely turned to online retailers a few times. Amazon may seem to embody the death of small stores (amongst other things), but they do listen to their customers. Five years ago, they got rid of excess packaging on 19 items that they shipped regularly. Instead of hermetically sealed clamshell cases (which can’t be recycled) they switched to smaller, easier to open (“frustration free”), recyclable packages. As a result of consumer desires, they’ve been able to get 2,000 retailers to participate, and raised the number of products shipped. Everybody wins, saving energy and money, shipping less weight and reducing materials used, while allowing the consumer to easily recycle what remains.
Recycling might not save the world, but it’ll improve it. Over the years, we’ve seen garbage cans shrink, our recycling improved from sorting crates that sluiced stale beer on us, to slick wheeled, co-mingled bins that don’t break solid waste workers’ backs. The city is doing their part to make it simple, our end of the bargain is participation.