Spokane Journal of Business

Single-stream recycling in Spokane lures many new users

Recycling method attracts more participation, material

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Single-stream recycling in Spokane lures many new users
-—Staff photo by Jessica Valencia
The Spokane Material and Recycling Technology Center can process 200 to 300 tons of recyclable material a day.

With the Spokane Material and Recycling Technology Center now up and running, the city of Spokane says it's receiving a higher-than-anticipated participation rate for the newly implemented single-stream recycling effort and hopes to see that rate continue to climb.

Single-stream recycling, which began Oct. 1, enables recyclable material to be loaded into the truck without being sorted beforehand. Material previously would be sorted out by a recycling collector at the truck as it was picked up from each customer.

In Spokane, the city's solid waste management department picks up recycling for roughly 65,000 residential customers. Scott Windsor, director of the city of Spokane's solid waste department, says it also picked up recycling for about 1,500 commercial customers in December. Windsor says that number is expected to edge closer to 2,000 commercial customers by the end of this month. Windsor says commercial recycling is an open market, with businesses having the option to use a number of other recycling services.

In December, he says, the city collected 1,600 tons of recycled material, double the amount collected in November. He attributes much of the increase to more types of material being accepted by the facility and to the ease of use for consumers who no longer have to separate their recycling.

Windsor says the city anticipated about a 75 percent customer-participation rate once the SMART center opened, and is seeing closer to a 78 percent customer participation rate. Prior to single-stream recycling, the city had about a 50 percent recycling participation rate, he says.

At the SMART center, material is sorted using a series of mechanical grades and is picked from conveyor belts by employees. Windsor says the facility primarily serves all of Spokane County, among other outlying cities in Eastern Washington.

The 50,000-square-foot recycling center is located at 2902 S. Geiger Blvd. Houston-based Waste Management Inc. developed the $20 million plant.

Waste Management currently employs about 40 people at the recycling center, says Matt Stern, the company's Northwest region area director of recycling operations. With the addition of a second shift sometime this year, that number is expected to be closer to 65 or 70 employees.

Windsor says departmentwide, the city's solid waste department employs about 190 people. Of that number, he says 28 are directly working with recycling.

Stern says the SMART center has the ability to process between 200 tons and 300 tons of recycled material a day. He says the facility is operating at about 60 percent capacity and likely will be operating at full capacity later this year.

"More than 2 years ago, we started making assumptions about the material we would get," Stern says, adding that the processing rate and amount of material the facility receives are on par with those assumptions.

Stern says Waste Management "pushed hard" for the SMART center to be completed quickly given the city of Spokane was in the process of phasing out its recycling fleet in favor of trucks with mechanized arms and new, larger bins.

The new 64-gallon containers, similar in size to a large trash container, have replaced the 18-gallon blue tubs the city previously distributed to its customers, Windsor says. Customers had the option of either keeping the tubs for personal use or leaving them out to be picked up and recycled.

The city spent $3.4 million on the new recycling containers and about $4 million on the new mechanized-arm trucks. Windsor says the transition from the older, sorted trucks to mechanized-arm trucks decreased the recycling fleet size from 20 trucks with 14 routes to 14 trucks with 11 routes.

With the new routes, some trucks that had dedicated commercial customer routes handle both residential and commercial pickup, Windsor says.

The city is seeing a shift in consumer trash receptacle size, in particular a downgrade by customers from a 64-gallon container to a 32-gallon container. For 2012, 55 percent of customers had 64-gallon trash disposal bins, down 5 percent from the year earlier. The city reports a coinciding 5 percent increase in the number of customers who had a 32-gallon bin last year compared with 2011.

In a random-sampling study conducted before implementing single-stream recycling, an average of 12.2 pounds of recycled material was collected weekly per customer in Spokane. Windsor says the sampling of North Side customers averaged 11.8 pounds of recycled material per week. That number was slightly higher for customers on the South Hill with an average of 12.6 pounds collected weekly. Windsor says he hopes to do a follow-up study in the fall of 2013 to evaluate the impact of single-stream recycling for customers.

He expects to see an increase citywide stemming from more paper products being recycled, including cardboard, cereal boxes, newspaper, and junk mail.

Windsor says about 5 percent of the total recycling brought into the center can't be processed, or is contaminated and needs to be disposed of. Windsor says recycling from multiunit housing developments such as apartment complexes typically has a higher contamination rate than single-family homes.

Items the facility cannot recycle include medical waste, Styrofoam, and light bulbs. The city of Spokane says customers can recycle batteries as long as they are placed in a plastic bag and left on top of the recycling cart.

Windsor says the facility needs to serve a population of a million people or more for it to be economically viable. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Spokane County had a population of about 473,000 people in 2011.

To help bridge that gap, Stern says the SMART center receives material from other Washington cities, such as Ellensburg and Wenatchee, and parts of Idaho and Canada. Stern says Waste Management would like to see the service area expand farther, possibly into parts of Montana or west central Canada.

"It would be impossible to justify an investment like this just with the material of Spokane," Stern says.

For every ton of material the city recycles as opposed to incinerating or sending to a landfill, Windsor says it saves about $100. The city says it anticipates it will save about $936,000 annually in disposal costs through the SMART center.

Windsor says anecdotally, the city also will save money through a potential decrease in the amount and type of injuries reported by truck operators. He says prior to the automated trucks, common on-the-job back, knee, and ankle injuries stemmed from getting in and out of the truck, particularly during bad weather conditions. With automated trucks, he says he expects to see the type of injury reported to change to more minor problems, like neck strain.

Stern says single-stream technology has been around for about a decade in Washington.

"That single-stream concept is still controversial even a decade later," Stern says.

One argument against the single-stream method, he says, is the contamination rate is too high. Even with mechanical and manual separation, separating material beforehand like it had been done in the city previously is the best way of keeping the contamination rate down, single-stream critics contend.

Stern says with that model, even though contamination decreases, there is often a smaller customer participation rate overall than with single-stream recycling.

The SMART center is located next to the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System-run Waste to Energy Facility. That facility can process about 800 tons of refuse a day and generates electricity through running the 2,500-degree incinerator used to dispose of garbage.

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