Community Indicators Initiative e-Newsletter
  Summer 2014
Single-stream program boosts Spokane recycling rates – CII 5.18
A city's capacity to recycle depends on a variety of factors, including regional littering and recycling laws, the local citizens' interest in recycling , the burning of trash or other waste disposal methods, and the ease with which municipal officials make recycling available to citizens.

If recycling is easy and people have incentive to do it, they most likely will engage in it. If it's difficult, costly or they don't see an incentive to doing so, they may be less likely to practice it.

According to information from the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System, "Under Washington state law (Chapter 70.95 RCW), each county, in cooperation with the cities located within, is required to prepare a coordinated, comprehensive solid waste management plan. Solid waste plans provide long-term, environmentally-sound solid waste management guidelines."

These plans get reviews and updates every five years. Spokane's 2009 plan currently is in use for the area's 13 regional cities, including Fairchild Air Force Base, until 2029.

Spokane's Regional Solid Waste System, first formed in 1988 to more efficiently operate the city's recycling and waste disposal facilities, is managed by the city of Spokane. Recently it was joined by the cities of Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley.

Committees and staff within the system work to keep it running and find ways to keep the public interested in recycling and responsible waste disposal, particularly for objects people tend to dump at the side of the road or down a drain. Things like old tires, electronic waste, paint and batteries, glasses and broken appliances are examples of things people aren't always sure what to do with.

In 2012, Spokane begin what is known as single stream recycling, where clean recyclables such as junk mail, cereal boxes and most plastics are collected without pre-sorting by households. Recycling jumped about 25 percent from 2011 numbers, from 281,747 tons to 352,913.
According to Suzanne Tresko from the city of Spokane, the city put significant effort into a recycling and waste reduction campaign in 2011 and 2012, anticipating the single stream recycling, or 'Big Blue' initiative in 2012.

"I like to think that that campaign was at least partly responsible for the increased percentage in the 2012 rate because we promoted both waste reduction and waste diversion," Tresko said.

"But during a slow economy like we've been experiencing, we buy less stuff and therefore throw away less stuff, so that probably had an effect on the stats as well. I am anxious to see what 2013 has to show since that will have the first full year of data [from the single stream recycling program,]" she said.

Spokane County already has one of the highest recycling rates in the state, according to Tresko.

"We started diverting food scraps through our composting program long before Portland caught up. We have lower contamination rates (that's the amount of non-recyclable materials that end up in recycling containers but end up getting thrown out as garbage) than San Francisco. And we have one of the best hazardous waste programs in the county," she said.

Where the county could improve, besides the areas of commercial and multi-family recycling, which may require more upfront investment than individual programs, she said, is overall waste reduction, which has a bigger environmental impact than recycling on its own.

"By the time I recycle my bottle or can or paper, the bulk of the Earth's resources that it took to get that product to me have already been expended – the extraction, the water/air/soil/greenhouse gas impacts, the transportation, the manufacturing, the packaging, more transportation – those resources are already gone by the time I purchase the product, way before I feel smug about dropping it in my recycling bin," Tresko said.