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How Some Cities Penalize Zero-Waste Efforts, How WM Profits...& What Wer'e Doing About It!

I've lived in two major cities over the past 18 years, one rural community and now in our smaller town on the I-5 corridor in a fairly agricultural community. And with this, even all here in the Pacific Northwest, I've seen a surprising variety in policies as to how waste reduction is addressed, encouraged...and where we live now, actively discouraged.

It dumbfounds me to now be in a town where residents who create little or no waste are required by law to still pay for services that are literally not being rendered (driving by to not empty a trash can or yard waste bin), and others based on age have the ability to pay a fraction of the price even when creating sometimes exponentially more waste than folks such as ourselves.

One thing that many communities forget is that those who are dedicated to zero waste don't just reduce how much goes in their trash cans - we also reduce how much we RECYCLE. And for those who do backyard composting, and/or without a lot of trees, the need for a yard waste bin can be negligible if at all.

I've reached out to the City to find ways to save money on services that we barely use, and have been responded to with what I can only perceive as apathy and a complete disinterest in sustainability...not to mention a clear focus on using rate hikes to discriminate against those who create the least waste...and charge based on age rather than how much waste they create.

Here's an overview of where I've lived since 2005, and how each locale has handled waste, from garbage to recycling to yard waste & compost:

  • Portland: The City reduced garbage pickup to biweekly once curbside composting was introduced, knowing that the majority of waste was food-based, and I still had the option of once-monthly garbage service. They also offer recycling & yard waste only (no garbage) for those taking it even more next level.

  • Astoria: Garbage pickup could be reduced to biweekly or not at all, as our neighbor did, and while we did not have curbside recycling or yard waste/compost due to being outside city limits, we could drop off our recycling for free at the local center (and if needed, yard waste by weight), which worked well.

  • Seattle: While garbage service is required, you can get a "micro cart" of just 12 gallons at a reduced rate - and a standard recycling bin is part of the price. Yard/Food Waste carts come in multiple sizes/rates as well, and includes an extra pickup in November to ensure folks rake leaves, preventing blockage of storm drains. In addition, they do special pickups for styrofoam recycling at no charge, and large item pickups like mattress recycling for a small fee.

And where we live now:

  • Here in our small town in the Skagit Valley, these services are ass-backwards to put it mildl!. Weekly garbage is legally required even though there is a dropoff location (like in Astoria), and while they offer smaller 20 gallon carts? In 2022 they stopped allowing those who are NOT senior citizens to use them - and charge seniors 1/3 of what the rest of residents pay, rather than charging all residents by usage.. My elderly neighbors' garbage bins are always overflowing yet they pays a little over $6/mo while we literally let others use our garbage because it'd take months to fill it up (that's what happens when you buy in the bulk aisle and avoid single use & non-recyclable packaging, y'all), and pay over 3X that amount. In addition, recycling is legally required (even with a nearby free dropoff spot in existence) and one can't get smaller bins OR biweekly or monthly pickup. In addition, the mandated recycling is only biweekly while garbage is weekly, encouraging waste rather than recycling. Seems WM was in cahoots with city council when these 'laws' were passed that benefit them, not the Earth.

  • Furthermore, if you go on vacation, the City will only stop charging you for weekly garbage if it's for more than TWO MONTHS (and hilariously paranoid, they take your bin instead of just asking you to take it off the street when your service is paused)! And Waste Management (who manages recycling/yard)? They charge a $40 "processing fee" to RESUME service after a vacation...basically equalling 6 weeks' worth of charges! A total junk fee if there ever was one.

So how are we tackling the system that is clearly more about profit over planet? A few ways...

  1. We've canceled our yard/food waste service - It is not mandated and cost us $15/month for a massive bin we never filled up! So we are relying exclusively on our DIY rodent-proof composter we're making from a galvanized trash can (check out this easy DIY plan - you just drill holes in the bottom half and bury it in a sunny spot- and if you don't have an old metal can, a new one is only $35 at the hardware store). Over the years I've had everything from an Earth Machine (tough to dig out the compost at the end), a plastic compartmented tumbler (rats in Portland chewed through the plastic to get in), and a massive DIY tumbler made from an old soy sauce barrel (very tough to turn and ultimately on the farm it was easier to just bury it in the raised beds at the end of the season). In Seattle, AKA "Rat City", we used the curbside service because we did not have diggable enough soil to bury a rodent-proof composter and we found the VitaMix FoodCycler to, while productive, be just a dehydrator for food - not an actual composter. So I've definitely tried it all, and knew that this buried version was the smartest - not to mention has no chemical-leeching plastic in it whatsoever.

  2. We are going to take a long "vacation" from garbage pickup. Are we actually going to be traveling for that long? Nope. But if they're going to require a 2 month minimum to hold on service, then that's what we'll do. Ironically, the seller left behind a spare trash can that does not belong to the city, so I've got a backup for what we do collect in the meantime. Pretty groovy.

  3. While we can't cancel our recycling and self-haul, we have eliminated all plastics recycling. After learning that of the small percentage that makes it to so-called recycling plants (9% - the rest usually shipped to poor countries to deal with), those items made from 'recycled' (downcycled) "end up with higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, multiplying their potential harm to human, animal and environmental health." The Guardian detailed this spring how multiple peer reviewed international studies and reports how the 'recycled' products "often contain HIGHER levels of chemicals such as toxic flame retardants, benzene and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants including brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels." So with that, we're becoming even MORE conscious of any plastics that come into the house, which I'll chat about more in a future post, as REDUCE is the first the three R's, folks...

“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.” ~ Annie Leonard, Executive Director - Greenpeace USA.


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