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Managing and Transforming Waste Streams – A Tool for Communities

Zero Waste Case Study: Seattle

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Seattle, WA


Seattle adopted a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance in 2003, a Zero Waste Resolution (PDF)(11 pp, 560 K, About PDF) in 2007, and a Zero Waste Strategy in 2010. In February 2013 the city council adopted revised recycling goals by adopting "Seattle’s Solid Waste Plan 2011 Revision" with the following goals:
  • Recycle 70% of municipal solid waste by 2022, and
  • Recycle 70% of construction and demolition debris by the year 2020.

Waste prevention focuses on reducing the amount of waste generated and is Seattle’s top priority in reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills. Seattle’s residents continue to make the shift from generating more waste to increased waste prevention, even as the city experiences significant population and economic growth.

The residential per capita waste generation rate dropped from 2.74 pounds in 2007 to an all-time low of 2.23 pounds per person per day in 2017. In addition, city-wide per capita disposal – the materials being sent to the landfill – has been steadily decreasing since 2000 and is at an all-time low of 0.81 pounds per person per day. Seattle recycled 56.9% of its municipal solid waste in 2017. The city's recycling rate has risen 30.1% since the 1998 low of 26.8%.

Two keys to their success are multiple contractors and a distant landfill. Seattle’s waste is rail hauled 257 miles south to the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Oregon. Having an effective waste reduction and recycling program and local processors cuts the transportation costs of landfill disposal.

Mandatory Recycling Ordinance

“Although market values of the recycled commodities vary with economic conditions, the cost of collecting, processing and transporting recyclables is approximately 50% less per ton than the cost of shipping the material to the landfill in Arlington, Oregon.”

The mandatory recycling ordinance included a three year phase-in to support the development of outreach, noticing and penalties. The ordinance covers single-family, multifamily and commercial generators. One full time position was allocated for enforcement. To date, hundreds of first and second warning tags have been issued to residential customers who are not recycling but few have resulted in fines and no commercial fines have been issued.

Procurement Best Practices

  • Separate disposal contracts from collection and processing contracts: This allows service providers to focus on the areas of expertise. Broad scope contracts can encourage wasting and limit access to top zero waste contractors.
  • Separate contractor compensation from customer rates: Seattle staff economists model and design rates appropriate to incentivize customers to reduce waste. Collection contractors are compensated separately from the rates, so they are not affected by customer choices.
  • Publicly-owned transfer stations: Seattle owns two recycling and transfer stations, the North Transfer Station and the South Transfer Station. Each facility is being upgraded after an extensive public outreach and visioning process. Public ownership of the transfer stations gives the city the flexibility to contract competitively with distant landfills.

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Contractual Arrangements

The city sets customer rates and does billing, and contractors are paid a combination of fixed and variable costs to better reflect the true cost of service. Compensation rates for the contractors are based on initial cost of service proposal plus an annual compensation adjustment. Compensation adjustments are indexed for inflation through an “Inflation Adjustment Factor” based on three indices: labor, fuel and Consumer Price Index.

Performance bonuses and penalties are based on service delivery standards, and contractors are rewarded for reduction in garbage and increases in recycling and composting. In addition, the contract includes the option of reducing garbage service to every other week with reduced service fees.


  • Transparent Rates: The straightforward rate process is based on inflation indicators and performance. Contractors are paid for costs of service and are not impacted by volume-based rates.
  • No Rate Review Process: Compensation is based on initial proposal plus escalator.


  • None reported.

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