The costs of being green

It’s not easy being green — and it turns out it’s not cheap, either. This certainly isn’t what I expected to find when I started looking into the costs of waste disposal in Seattle.

Trash and organics picked up throughout the city are first taken to one of two transfer stations, North (in the Fremont neighborhood) or South (in the South Park neighborhood). The North Station is temporarily closed and being reconstructed, so as of this writing everything is going via the South Transfer Station. From there, Seattle’s trash travels over 300 miles, by train, to the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Eastern Oregon (view map). Organics are split between two composting companies, Lenz in Stanwood, WA (60mi from the South Transfer Station, or 50mi from the North Transfer Station; view map), and PacifiClean outside Cle Elum (98mi from either transfer station; view map). Recycling is taken directly to Rabanco, in SODO (the neighborhood SOuth of DOwntown), which for much of the city is a shorter haul than the South Transfer Station.

The other waste stream I’ve priced out is biosolids from the wastewater treatment plants, which go to a variety of different locations. I’ll go into details in another post; overall, 70% are hauled to Eastern Washington and spread on farm fields (mostly wheat, canola, hops) in Douglas and Yakima Counties, 28% are spread on forest lands in Western Washington, and 4% are composted locally to a higher standard suitable for household garden and landscaping use. Washington State mandates a “beneficial use” for biosolids, but in other states they can be landfilled, either directly or after incineration (to reduce tonnage).

Hauling trash to Eastern Oregon isn’t cheap. In 2008, Seattle paid $43.91/ton for hauling and disposal. The contract (like the recycling and organics contracts) uses the Consumer Price Index (specifically, the CPI-W) as its measure for adjusting the costs each year. Calculating that out, and including the contract-specified decrease of $5.50/ton in 2009 (I don’t know why, either), I’m estimating that the 2009 cost was $40.39/ton, and the 2014 cost was $43.76/ton. Let’s use these prices as our comparison points.

Recycling was expected to be far cheaper. In 2009, the city’s contract with Rabanco specified a $27/ton processing fee. (There is no hauling fee, since Rabanco is right in town and the garbage trucks go there directly.) However, there’s a catch in this contract: this base fee is based on certain prices for selling the sorted and processed recyclable materials, and the city assumes responsibility for market fluctuations up or down. So if the price Rabanco gets for recyclables decreases, the processing fee paid by the city increases proportionally, and vice versa. The city’s actual cost could be substantially higher or lower in any given year.

To try to estimate this, I’ve taken a look at the city’s report on total costs for the recycling program, which includes the costs of collection (I haven’t found similar total costs for garbage to compare, which would be the ideal comparison). The contract that started April 1, 2009 used average prices from January-December 2006, so I took a look at how the total costs of the recycling program changed since then. In 2006, the City’s average total costs for the recycling program was $81.44/ton, which fell to $54.28/ton in 2008. However, this spiked upwards in 2009 to $171.38/ton, and looking at the monthly data it appears that this was due to the financial meltdown and the severe drop in demand for recycled materials, since it’s a severe spike upwards with a quick, though partial, recovery. It had already peaked and started to drop before the new contract took effect on April 1st, and I don’t think much of this is due to sustained cost changes such as fuel or labor, either. Costs continued to drop to $129.41 for 2011, and then climbed back up to $182.29 for 2013.

Assuming that the entire $89.94 cost increase between 2006 and 2009 was due to plummeting markets for recycled materials, that would bring the 2009 recycling processing cost up to $116.94. Yeowch — almost three times as expensive as landfilling that year! Seattle recycled 80,530 tons in 2009 (2013 was slightly lower, at 78,892 tons), so recycling cost the city roughly an extra $6 million that year.

To my surprise, organics recycling is also more expensive than landfilling. Seattle paid PacifiClean $49.50/ton for hauling and processing in 2014, though there are some clauses to offset light or heavy loads.¹ Lenz’s contract is a bit more complicated, since hauling costs are specified per load (which can vary in weight) and processing fees are per ton.² Running Lenz’s numbers through a few scenarios, the cost is pretty comparable to PacifiClean’s. It would actually be about $5.74/ton cheaper to landfill the organics instead. In 2013, Seattle composted 134,761 tons of organics (residential, commercial, and self-haul), costing $773,500 extra vs. landfilling.

I’d like to know how the city’s total income from collection fees has changed over time — individual households or businesses pay substantially less per volume/weight for recycling or organics vs. trash, to incentivize participation, but I would expect that the trash fees have been increased to essentially include a subsidy for the recycling and organics collections. I’m leaving the revenue streams out for now, since that would take a lot of digging and figuring and politics to disentangle.

Recycling biosolids is also more expensive than landfilling: overall, the current mix of uses costs $53.08/ton for hauling and processing. I’ve subtracted out staff costs to keep the numbers comparable, although it’s arguable that landfilling biosolids would also require fewer staff since it would be a less complex program (plus the biosolids wouldn’t need to be tested, etc. etc.). King County owns much of the equipment used for biosolids hauling and spreading, and I’ve left these capital and maintenance costs in — by contrast, the garbage, organics, and recycling contracts are explicit that all equipment is owned and maintained by the contractors, and presumably those costs are accounted for in the fee they charge the city. This cost is the net cost after accounting for revenue from biosolids. Farmers pay for the biosolids they receive, based on the nitrogen content (but at about half the market rate for chemical N fertilizers), but that revenue only pays for about 2% of the costs. Landfilling the biosolids (not legal, and not a good idea) would be $9.32/ton cheaper — for 2008, that adds up to $1.07 million extra for 115,000 tons of biosolids (which come from suburban King County as well, not just Seattle). If the county landfilled its biosolids, it would probably dry them further first (they’re over 70% water by weight), so landfilling would likely be even cheaper than these numbers indicate.

These numbers aren’t what I expected to find, and certainly not what I wanted to hear. Recycling, composting, and land-applying biosolids costs the city around $7.5 million per year, compared with landfilling everything. There’s a lot of good reasons to recycle and compost, but it turns out that money just isn’t one of them.

Sources: Seattle Public Utilities contracts and reports, and King County Biosolids Plan 2012-2016 and its appendices.

¹ The city pays for 24 tons/load minimum for light loads, and in any month where the average weight exceeds 27 tons/load, the entire month’s tonnage gets discounted $3/ton.

² Loads from the North Transfer Station cost $403 for hauling, vs. $473 from the South Transfer Station (20% further). Processing fees are $31.60/ton.


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Filed under biosolids, compost, garbage, recycling, Seattle

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