Thursday, March 24, 2011

Refuse: A Tale of Two Cities... ok, one's a town...

Mom's garbage set up - black is garbage
I'm always amazed when I visit Seattle how far ahead they are of my local area in reducing waste. When we first moved to Germany, we were stunned to find a trash can about half the size of our old one, and dumbfounded to learn it was picked up bi-weekly. We are a small family of three and were relatively conscientious, we thought, about recycling, reusing, and our consumption. We usually didn't fill our 32-gallon can in Maryland, but certainly we more than filled it over a two week period. Now we were being challenged, nay limited, to produce half that amount of garbage. We asked others, how do you manage it? Easy. You drive your garbage to the military base and dump it into one of the many many giant dumpsters. So, we did that a few times. Generally, those giant dumpsters themselves were overflowing, bags left on the ground beside them along with all sorts of assorted junk items. Without a junk yard, I guess this was it. But we really weren't keen on driving garbage ten miles to dump it. So, we settled into the local ways and began reducing our refuse. By the time we left Germany, we rarely filled our bi-weekly smaller can. A triumph.

People frequently ask my husband and I what is the most dramatic difference between our time in Germany and returning home to Maryland. There are a lot of things, but invariably we say: the garbage. We returned home as leaner, meaner garbage producers and have stayed that way. By composting, we were able to reduce our stateside waste tremendously. By consuming local foods, we avoid all the packaging that comes from buying prepared foods and other products. It's amazing how it adds up. Our neighbors, on the other hand, seem to be running a junk yard. Indeed, we have no idea how they produce so much waste. We have nine homes on our little road, so we don't know which neighbors in particular are dumping the most garbage. It is definitely multiple homes. But, it's shocking. If I remember, I'll add a photo later to this post. The garbage is picked up every week and the massive number of bags that are set out on the curb together is stunning.

I think they must have all lobbied against the "pay by the bag" bill that was being debated when we returned to Maryland. Currently our waste gets shipped to Virginia to be dumped. Kinda sad, I know.  The increasing costs of gas and probably Virginians objecting to other States waste has led to steadily rising bills for the town. So, it was proposed in 2008 that the Town move to a pay as you go system. I think you got some number of 32-gallon bags a year allotted free and then you could purchase additional bags for $2.50/each. Something like that. The Town had calculated recycling adoption rates at about 35% in the town. So there certainly is a lot of trimming to be done to the piles that get trucked to our southern neighbor.  Residents were up in arms. The measure failed to pass. The town management warned that eventually something would have to give. Most people view tomorrow as another day: today, pick up my damn garbage. There is another campaign to increase recycling adoption through single stream recycling. So, we'll see what the future holds.

In the meantime, in Seattle, residents are given recycling bins, food and yard waste bins, and garbage. The photo above is my mother's setup. Can you believe how small that garbage bin is? It's 10 gallons, apparently. Looks like 2 gallons to me. All of these are picked up weekly. In the food and yard waste bin you can put all food items of any kind, including their compostable (like cardboard) containers. There are special plastic bags you can use that are compostable, so you can store your food waste in them and then toss the bag in for cleanliness. The city already provides compost containers for residents to use on their own property, but now they run a giant compost system for the County. You pay depending on what size containers you want, so you can indeed choose a 32-gallon container, and you can choose smaller yard waste and recycling bins.

In the restaurants here they also have mandatory composting. As you finish your meal at a local fish-n-chips place near my mom's house, your greeted with three bins at the tray disposal. The small containers for tartar sauce are dumped into food waste, the bigger coleslaw container goes to recycling, including the coleslaw, and only the plastic utensils, straws and a few other things head to trash. An array of photos on each bin gives you a visual guide to somewhat complex disposal rules. The food containers are mostly composted. It's really very impressive.

I suppose the only real difficulty here is that it's an entire change in perspective. You have to change  the way you handle your waste, keeping in mind what goes where. That's a social change that seems a long way from a community with a 35% adoption rate of recycling.

Though Seattle's system may sound complex, it's in the spirit of simple living - and this post is part of Simple Lives Thursday at Sustainable Eats. And speaking of simple things, here's some simple pleasures from my mom's garden. Spring has sprung in Seattle and she's got a grand array of tiny flowers blooming everywhere.


  1. I'm in Seattle and was totally offended when we went to mandatory yard waste bins. Since I already composted at home, I didn't want the extra fee to have someone take my pre-compost away from me, then sell it back to me. So, I cancelled my yard-waste collection, and reduced my garbage can. We compost the small stuff religiously, and do a spring and fall run to the yard waste recycling center for the big branches.

    Seattle did do something progressive and increased the types of items that can be recycled. Now we fill/overflow that huge blue bin (64 gal) every two weeks and barely fill our garbage (32 gal), even with a kid in diapers.

  2. I agree that Seattle is pretty progressive in terms of dealing with waste, but you don't have all the same options outside of Seattle. Hopefully the other counties will catch up, especially with the food waste & containers.

    BTW, that tiny garbage can is great - except when you're cleaning out your mother's cabinets that are filled with expired items in bulky packaging.