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Sustainable Seattle: City Launches New Compost Pickup Program as Part of Zero Waste Strategy

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We speak with Richard Conlin, one of the leading voices in the movement to build sustainable cities and reduce waste. Conlin is president of the Seattle City Council and a co-founder of the organization Sustainable Seattle. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in Seattle on our community media Standing Up to the Madness tour; Juan Gonzalez in New York. And sitting next to me today is Richard Conlin. He’s the president of the Seattle City Council, co-founder of the organization Sustainable Seattle. Two years ago, Richard Conlin launched the Zero Waste Strategy to improve the city’s recycling rate and advocated a twenty-cent fee on disposable shopping bags that was passed by the City Council. But the plastics industry and the Washington Food Industry launched a petition drive against the ordinance, and the issue is expected to be placed on the ballot for a public vote later this year.

Well, today, as Seattle launches a new composting program to further improve its waste management, Richard Conlin, we welcome you to Democracy Now! to make the announcement of today’s program that’s beginning in Seattle.

RICHARD CONLIN: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you. Talk about this program that starts today.

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, we’ve actually been doing food waste composting for a while in the city, but today we inaugurate a universal collection for all single-family households, and all food waste can be put into it. It’s going to be moving from a biweekly to a weekly model. We’re expanding from the 60,000 households who formerly participated to about 100,000 households participating today. We expect this to be a huge step forward in the Zero Waste Strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work?

RICHARD CONLIN: Essentially, everybody gets a cart. You can get different sizes of carts, depending on what you’re going to be producing in your household. And then, the cart is picked up on a weekly basis. You can place all food and all food-related items into it. The food then gets taken off to a composting facility, and it becomes great soil.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation for renewable — for composting for environmental policy in Seattle.

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, Seattle has a great group of citizens who are really committed to the environment. And we’ve been working for a long time to try and improve a lot of different things about the way in which we deal with environmental issues and into the concept of sustainability, which brings environment, economy, social justice and community together. So this is simply one step in making that happen. The Zero Waste Strategy is designed to really take the next step beyond recycling. Lots of people recycle. What we’re talking about is waste reduction and moving to the next stage, where we actually reduce the amount of waste that’s sent away to the landfills.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Richard Conlin, what happened with the plastic bag initiative, the twenty-cent tax, and how was that beaten back?

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, first of all, it’s not a tax; it’s a fee. It’s an advance disposal fee. So, what happens is that every — when a person gets a bag at a store, they are charged a fee by the store, and then that store goes into the Solid Waste Fund and is used for recycling programs. That was voted by the council and approved last year.

And then the plastics industry came in, and they put $200,000 into a signature-gathering drive. It’s the most astonishing initiative drive I’ve seen. They paid $15 per signature. But they were able to get it and put it on the ballot. We have — this is a Progressive Era state, and so the people have the right to vote on these things. And we will be putting it on the ballot this August, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does — go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the total amount of waste that Seattle produces, does it, like many cities, export its garbage to landfills or even out of state?

RICHARD CONLIN: We actually send our garbage to a landfill in eastern Oregon. And every day, we send a mile-long train of garbage out of Seattle to that landfill in eastern Oregon. It’s really an astonishing thing to have to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how Seattle has become the first city in King County to mandate food and yard waste, to mandate the whole service that you have?

RICHARD CONLIN: We’ve been working on this for a long time, but we really had a tremendous spirit in our public that told us that we needed to do something a little bit more. We started recycling, curbside recycling, back in the early 1990s, late ’80s. And what happened was that as we were looking at redoing our transfer station system, we had a proposal to add a third transfer station to the two transfer stations we have. And we looked at that, and we said, “Why are we building new ways to dispose of garbage, when what we ought to be doing is finding ways in which to reduce the amount of garbage?” So instead of building that third transfer station, we created the Zero Waste Strategy. And we put this out for — to a public hearing, and we had hundreds of people show up, and basically nobody opposed it. The people of Seattle really believe that this is the direction, the kind of thing that we ought to be doing.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Richard Conlin on another issue. Our previous guests were dealing with the tent city in Seattle. I’m wondering how the city council regards the developments of these tent cities. And is there any difference between the council’s view and that of the mayor?

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, I’m not sure I can speak for the mayor, but what I can say from the council’s perspective is that there was an agreement negotiated with the group initially to allow the siting of a tent city. Clearly, what we’re looking for is to try and bring people out of homelessness. Our goal is to find ways in which to give people jobs, get people homes, get people places to live. Given that that’s a challenging goal, you always have to look at — so what are the things you do in the short term in order to make sure that people do have shelter? But the long-term goal is really clear. We don’t think that anybody should have to be homeless.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a permanent siting, going to be, for the Nickelsville? And how does the mayor feel about it being named for him?

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, you probably have to ask the mayor that one. But I would guess he’s not particularly enthusiastic about it. And I don’t think there’s likely to be a permanent siting for a tent city. The previous tent city does not have a permanent site. It moves on a regular basis from church lot to church lot and sometimes in non-church areas, as well. So I don’t think there’s a permanent site, and we really aren’t aiming for that. We’re aiming to try and find ways in which to help people get out of homelessness. That’s really the goal.

AMY GOODMAN: And the overall policy of the Obama administration around renewable energy, around green jobs, how does that specifically affect Seattle?

RICHARD CONLIN: Well, we feel like we’re positioned very well to be — take the lead in the next economy, because Seattle has long had a commitment to developing green jobs. We’ve actually made environmentally sustainable business, which is our acronym we use for it, we made that one of our five target industries for development for the last several years. And so, there’s going to be great chances for us to do not only things like siting the manufacture of wind turbines and facilities for production of that, solar cells. All of those kind of things can be sited in Seattle. We’ve got some of those business here right now, the architectural and engineering firms that are around them, and many other kinds of green jobs, as well. So this is a great chance for us.

And as the economy changes, as we move into the next stage of this economy, it’s a great way in which to bring together the environment and the economy. And we’ve got to get past that old dichotomy of saying there’s a conflict between them, because there isn’t. The fact is that that’s the only way in which we’re going to have a real economy for the future, is one that is environmentally responsible.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Richard Conlin, I thank you for joining us. Richard Conlin is the president of the Seattle City Council. He is also the co-founder of the organization Sustainable Seattle. And he is on the board of YES! Magazine. This is Democracy Now!, as we broadcast on the road, beginning our, well, close to seventy-city tour right here in Seattle, Washington.

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