The practice of requiring waste service providers to include recycling with trash services was recently audited by the state which revealed that counties requiring the service recycle at much higher rates.
The report was released on Oct. 8 by the Washington State Auditor’s Office after it was directed by the state Legislature to evaluate the effect of embedded commercial recycling in cities. The report found that cities using the practice saw far higher rates of recycling, although the study found there may be additional factors contributing to those figures.
Across the state there are 20 cities with more than 15,000 residents that require the service, with another set to require it beginning in 2019. Of these, all but two are in King County with the remaining two residing in Snohomish County. None of the cities studied from Pierce, Kitsap or Spokane counties required embedded recycling.
King County had a countywide recycling rate of 30 percent and a commercial recycling rate of 47 percent, much higher than the 17 percent commercial recycling rate found in Snohomish County, or the 11 percent in Pierce County and the 16 percent in Kitsap County. However, the study noted King County spends more effort educating its residents about recycling than the other counties studied.
The collection of solid waste in Washington state is usually handled by private companies and regulated by cities and counties through the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission. Companies are given exclusive rights to geographic franchise areas and counties set standards for solid waste collection and control of the landfills. However, cities can assert authority over solid waste collection, overriding the private franchise rights, and become responsible for waste collection itself or contract with companies to do it.
While embedded recycling may encourage more people to recycle, it may also lead to less competition between service providers. Smaller companies may not be able to purchase the trucks and hire drivers as quickly as larger companies if required to provide recycling services in addition to trash collection. One study found that contracts with five or more bidders achieved prices 29 percent lower than those contracts with only one or two bidders. However, of the 14 King County cities that took bids for collecting solid waste during the last decade, only one received four proposals and the rest received three or fewer, with all but one proposal coming from one of the four biggest national corporations.
Data from the Utilities and Trade Commission showed that small waste haulers in King County have less than 25 percent of the commercial recycling market share whereas that rises to 25 to 50 percent in Snohomish County and reaches upwards of 75 percent in Spokane County.
For businesses, combining services can lead to higher rates and taxes. Combined recycling and trash collection is required to be marketed as free, or at no additional cost, but haulers raise their rates to cover their expenses for the services. The state levies a 3.6 percent tax on garbage services, which generates about $48 million each year. It is applied only to garbage services, but when recycling is bundled in, it ends up being taxed too, costing businesses about $28 annually.
All the large haulers in Washington state which are required to offer combined services for businesses also use single-stream recycling, meaning all recyclables are placed in the same container and later sorted. That practice is likely to get more expensive as China, long the largest single buyer of recycled materials, tightened its contamination limits on imports earlier this year. That means recyclables must be cleaner to be recycled.