Bellingham Residential Recycling and Waste Collection Services FAQ

Waste and recycling collection is changing across the country as the cost of processing recycling increases and as cities make commitments to reduce waste and climate emissions. With these changes, it is necessary for cities to re-evaluate waste and recycling collection systems to ensure their efficiency and effectiveness while reducing environmental and health impacts.

The City of Bellingham has a contract with Sanitary Service Company (SSC) to manage residential recycling and waste collection in Bellingham. On February 27, 2023, City staff and SSC proposed the following changes for Bellingham City Council’s consideration:

  • Switch from a three-bin, curb-sorted recycling system for single-family residences to a single-stream (or “commingled”) recycling system that uses one 96-gallon bin for all recyclables.
  • Add organics collection as a minimum service level for all single-family residential customers.

In response, City Council approved a resolution that allows the City to modify its contract with SSC to include the above changes. Visit SSC’s website for more information about current single-stream recycling efforts.

Learn more about single-stream recycling and organic waste collection below.

Single-stream recycling is a collection system in which all recyclables are placed in a single bin for recycling. Under this system, residents place plastic, aluminum, paper, cardboard, newspaper, etc. in one bin. The bins are picked up by local waste collection service providers and sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). MRFs are equipped with advanced technology to properly sort and separate recycling so that the recyclables can be sold and manufactured into new products.

Graph showing that most jurisdictions in Washington State use single-stream, or commingled, recycling.
Graph showing recycling collection systems across Washington State. Source: Zero Waste Washington.

Single-stream (or “commingled”) recycling is the most common recycling method in Washington State and most of the nation. According to Zero Waste Washington’s 2019 State of Residential Recycling and Organics Collection in Washington report, more than 85% of Washington cities already use single stream, or commingled, recycling systems. The MRF that Bellingham sends its recycling to already receives mixed recycling from other cities.

The benefits of single-stream recycling include reduced operational costs and increased participation in recycling due to customer convenience. Many of the benefits of single-stream recycling below were demonstrated during a 2022 pilot project in Bellingham’s Edgemoor neighborhood or in other cities that use single-stream recycling:

  • Reduced operational costs
    • Single-stream recycling allows for recycling bin pick-up to be automated, leading to more efficient collection, fewer recycling trucks needed, and reduced labor costs. Reducing operational costs can provide more cost predictability and fewer customer rate increases.
  • Improved worker and community safety
    • Automation of recycling collection services reduces employee injuries and exposure to hazards. Fewer sanitation trucks on the road result in less traffic congestion and reduced risk of accidents.
  • Reduced climate emissions
    • Fewer sanitation trucks on the roads also reduces transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. The use of more efficient and spacious trucks reduce the number of round-trip drop-offs the trucks need to make.
  • Less litter and contamination
    • Using a fully enclosed bin instead of open crates for recycling limits how much recyclables are exposed to weather conditions.
      • Wind blows recyclables into yards, roadways, ditches, and waterways which can affect drainage, traffic, and critical water areas. This creates litter that local governments must expend taxpayer resources to clean.
      • Rainwater can contaminate recyclables, especially paper products and cardboard. It is more difficult to properly sort and recycle wet cardboard.
  • Customer convenience
    • Mixed recycling – customers do not need to separate their recyclables.
    • More space – the bin holds more material, allowing for fewer pick-ups.
    • Wheels – the bins can be wheeled to the curb instead of needing to be carried.
    • Enclosed – a lid on the bin means fewer recyclables are blown away or rained on.

Household organic waste includes food and yard waste. In the absence of an organic waste collection program, organic waste is put in the same bin as garbage and taken to the landfill.

With an organic waste collection system, residents put their organic waste in a separate bin to be picked up by the local waste collection service provider. The organic waste is then taken to a facility to be composted into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

SSC currently offers an organic waste collection service called FoodPlus! that customers can voluntarily participate in for a fee. Approximately 40% of SSC customers participate in this program.

Organic waste collection reduces the amount of organic material that ends up in landfills that could otherwise be composted into a beneficial product. Organic waste collection results in fewer garbage pick-ups each month and a reduction in climate emissions:

  • Reduced climate emissions
    • Organic material that is sent to the landfill emits methane as it decomposes over time. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. According to the U.S. EPA, 15% of methane emissions in the U.S. are from landfills. Diverting organic waste from the landfill reduces methane emissions associated with waste disposal.
  • Turn waste into compost
    • Organic material can be composted and turned into a rich soil amendment, rather than rotting away in a landfill. This compost can then be used to improve soil quality, giving the waste a beneficial purpose.
  • Fewer garbage pick-ups
    • A waste audit in 2018 found that about 30% of Bellingham’s residential waste in landfills was organic material. When customers divert organic waste from their garbage bin to a separate bin, they can reduce the frequency of their garbage bin pick-ups.

Washington State legislators have recently passed or proposed bills to reduce waste, including:

  • House Bill 1799: Passed in 2022 to require local governments and other entities to reduce the amount of organic material disposed in landfills.
  • House Bill 1131 – Washington Recycling and Packaging (WRAP) Act: Under consideration during the current legislative session. The goals of this bill are to reduce wasteful packaging and create a bottle deposit system.

Additional Information

All Bellingham residents are required to subscribe to regular garbage collection (BMC 9.12) and for decades the City has contracted directly with Sanitary Service Company (SSC) to provide this service. Many years ago, recycling was added as a minimum service which evolved into the three-bin, curb-sorted recycling system Bellingham residents use today. Through this system, customers are responsible for sorting cans/glass/plastic, mixed paper, and newspaper separately.

SSC trucks are not designed to pick up recycling bins with an automated system. Currently SSC employees must get out of the truck at every residence to pick up and deposit each of these smaller recycling bins into the truck by hand. Once collected, SSC pays a fee to send the recyclables to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), which has become more expensive. 

The cost to process recycling has increased significantly in recent years across the U.S. Waste collection service providers used to be able to sell recyclables for a small profit to help offset the costs of collection. However, changes in the international recycling commodities market – including a ban on imported recyclables by China in January 2018 – has made processing recycling significantly more expensive.

For example, rather than making a small profit by selling recyclables, SSC now pays $205/ton to have recyclables processed. This is nearly twice as much as the cost of sending garbage to the landfill ($120/ton). These increased costs have affected the entire waste and recycling industry.

Yes, reducing operational costs by using more efficient recycling collection would provide more cost predictability, which would mean fewer shifts in customer rates. For example, SSC had a 25-30% rate increase in 2020 largely driven by the labor market and the volatility of recycling commodity markets. By increasing efficiency and reducing operational costs, waste and recycling collection rates would not be as dependent on and influenced by external markets, which would allow for smaller rate increases over time.  

There are some concerns about contamination with single-stream recycling, with the primary contaminant of concern being broken glass. Higher contamination rates are observed with single-stream recycling than dual, or separated, recycling systems. However, it has been shown in areas with single-stream recycling that the convenience of a single bin results in increased customer participation in recycling. These increased recycling rates, coupled with adjustments as needed – such as separating glass – have the potential to offset increased contamination.

Additionally, contamination already happens with pre-sorting recyclables since consumers may not always know what is and is not recyclable. Fortunately, the recycling processing facilities that Bellingham’s recyclables are shipped to – called MRFs – have advanced technology that can clear these contaminants more effectively than hand-sorting these materials. The MRFs are already equipped to handle single-stream recycling. They have optic reading systems that can identify the useful materials and effectively recycle them.

In an open 3-bin system, recyclables are exposed to weather conditions. Several months of the year, the recyclables that were once sorted appropriately and awaiting collection are caught in the wind and scattered into yards, roadways, ditches, and waterways. These wind-blown items can affect drainage, traffic, and critical water areas designed for improving water quality. Local government staff maintaining this infrastructure are then responsible to pick up wind-blown objects, expending time and taxpayer resources to do so. Using a fully enclosed single bin would reduce the potential of wind-blown materials ending up as litter.

Additionally, rainwater can be a contaminant to the recyclables, especially paper products and cardboard. It is more difficult to properly sort and recycle cardboard that has been contaminated by rain. A fully enclosed bin reduces the amount of rainwater that could contaminate the recyclables.