Tabulating the benefits of recyling
by Rodney Hansen
Back in 1988, the only bins at the curb in King County were the kind filled with garbage headed for our landfills. It was a time when recycling was mostly about community fundraisers and cash for cans. Only a dreamer would have thought that in King County's future there would be the birth of a grassroots movement to find a better use for half of everything we throw away.
As King County looks ahead to the next decade of recycling and the steps that will be required if we choose to build on that grass roots commitment, it's important for us to honestly reflect on what we have really achieved in the '90s.
The decision to embark on a comprehensive recycling program was made in the late 1980s, during an era of rapid growth in the region. Even then, it was clear King County needed to change course to protect valuable landfill life, conserve resources, and embrace the waste reduction and recycling movement.
Today, it is easy to see that citizens made the right choice. As we had hoped, recycling has extended the lives of our landfills, conserved our natural resources, and helped to protect our environment. Recycling is also saving money on garbage bills.
And now we have documented an additional benefit, perhaps not fully anticipated years ago when we began changing the way we think about trash: Recycling is giving our state and local economy a strong boost. According to a recent study by the King County Solid Waste Division, the recycling industry now supports nearly 17,000 jobs in Washington State--more than 3,000 in King County alone.
And more jobs are being created every day in this growth industry--over 3,000 statewide between 1992 and 1995. Equally significant is the fact that most of these recycling jobs--more than 13,000 statewide and 1,700 in King County--are in the manufacturing sector, which has been on the decline in recent years.
The recycling industry is also investing significant capital in both the state and local economies. In 1995, the industry's statewide capital investment was $1.5 billion--$160 million in King County. Recycling firms are spending money to build new facilities and buy new equipment, vehicles, and machinery.
Clearly, recycling has proven to be the right course for the region. While its merits have been, and will continue to be, debated on a national scale, here at home the focus should continue to be recycling more and recycling better. Why? Because it simply makes good environmental and economic sense.
Indeed, new jobs and increasing capital investments benefit everyone, from the local contractors and merchants who profit from new business to the cities and counties that are committed to handling waste in the most cost effective manner possible. And the recycled materials that feed the recycling industry are diverted from permanent disposal in our landfills, adding years to the lives of those facilities.
But what about average people, individual homeowners who separate cans and bottles from the garbage? In King County, they see a credit on their garbage bills based on the value of the recyclable materials sold by their collection company. Those are real savings gained through recycling.
Simply put, it costs more to dispose of recyclable materials than to recycle them. After all, it's a primary reason King County began its recycling program in the first place: to respond to the vast majority of citizens who said they didn't want us to invest in expensive waste disposal facilities such as incinerators. Instead, citizens asked us to give them a chance to cut the waste stream and protect the environment through recycling programs.
We responded, and so have they, recycling approximately 50 percent of their waste. In 1995, for example, county residents recycled nearly 700,000 tons of glass, paper, metals, yard waste, and plastic. That's a lot of so-called "trash" that instead of being buried forever, is being reused in a variety of products, creating new jobs and spurring our economy.
As King County and its citizens lay the foundation for the next decade of waste reduction and recycling, a look back will tell them it's a journey worth taking.