Seattle Creates Carbon Neutrality & Zero Waste Plan

A January 8 Sustainable Cities Network article examined the City of Seattle’s recent decision to become carbon neutral by 2050 and its efforts to move towards zero waste.  The article stated that the City’s decision to become carbon neutral was heavily influenced by projected climate change impacts, including sea level rise and the disappearance of nearby snowpacks that provide a significant amount of the City’s electricity through hydroelectric power:

In January 2013, Seattle Public Utilities planners created a map, using conservative scientific assumptions, to show which parts of the city would be affected by the raising sea in the next 40 years.

“The map shows a significant amount of our industrial land under water in the year 2050,” [Seattle City Council Member Mike] O’Brien said. “That’s far enough away that it’s hard for people to grasp that reality, and yet at high tide and during high-water events we’re already seeing the impact.”

And, future impacts could affect more than just the homes and businesses in the new flood zones. A significant number of sewer lines and outfalls will need to be moved to prevent the backflow from flooding other areas of the city. These projected infrastructure changes, including the mitigation of combined sewer overflows and the stabilizing of the city’s antiquated seawall will cost hundreds of millions in the short term, and much more in the decades to come, depending on how high the water eventually rises.

In response, the City Council voted in June of 2013 to adopt the Seattle Climate Action Plan, which specifies both short-term and long-term actions the City needs to take to become carbon neutral by 2050.  The Plan focuses on three key sectors:  (1) transportation and land use; (2) building energy; and (3) solid waste.

The transportation and land use portion of the Plan focuses on the creation of “complete communities” that provide residents with diverse housing, work, shopping, and entertainment opportunities without the need to drive.  Longer distance transportation options will focus on electric cars and a multi-modal transportation system.  The building energy section of the Plan focuses on the implementation of an energy benchmarking requirement for all buildings over 20,0000 square feet (estimated to be 94% complete), encouraging new buildings to meet LEED silver or gold certification, making buildings “district-energy ready” and converting “waste heat” generated by sewage and computer server farms into energy.

The Plan’s solid waste portion focuses on moving towards a zero waste community:

In 2012, the city had a landfill diversion rate of 55.7 percent. Its goal is to reach 60 percent by 2015 and 70 percent by 2022. [Director of Solid Waste Timothy] Croll said the single-family residential diversion rate is already at 70 percent, achieved through a 25-year history of gradually stepping up recycling efforts.

Croll cited four keys to success:

1) Making recycling convenient by giving residents special bins and providing curbside service for yard waste, food scraps, and recyclables. The uniform bins and garbage cans provided by the city also have the benefit of increasing efficiency and reducing injuries among collectors, since they can be emptied using semi-automated systems.

2) Outreach campaigns that promote the environmental benefits of recycling and composting.

3) Financial incentives: In a “pay as you throw” system, residents are issued garbage cans of various sizes; the bigger the can, the higher the monthly fee. And, fees for using the bigger cans are exaggerated to further encourage recycling and reuse.

4) Policies that ban recyclables in garbage. Croll said these policies are “lightly enforced” with plenty of warnings. (No one has ever been fined.)

The city began curbside recycling for single-family homes in 1988. In the late 1990s, it began collecting recyclables at apartment buildings; and in 2009 it started picking up yard and food waste once a week instead of every other week. Croll said the city council will soon be deciding whether to reduce garbage collection to every other week, in order to further encourage recycling.

“Our pilot study revealed that you get about a 15 percent reduction in land filling when you do that,” Croll said. The council may also be considering a ban on food waste in garbage, which would divert even more, he said.

The city has banned single-use plastic bags and requires merchants to charge 5 cents for a paper bag, which is money the merchants get to keep.

Croll said his department spends a great deal of time modeling and analyzing the composition of the waste stream in order to develop its diversion priorities and goals.

“The goals are all based on the cost effectiveness of diversion versus land filling,” Croll said. The processing fees the city pays to its recycling contractor are based on the market prices for recycled material, as determined by third-party indices.

“If those independent indices go up, showing the market is going up, then we get a credit to our processing fee. If they go down, then we have to pay more. Many more years than not, we’ve gotten a credit, and in some years the credit has been so big that we’ve actually made money from processing recyclables. That doesn’t count the cost of collecting,” he said.