Hard times, less trash
County's waste management forced to make cuts as revenues fall People are trashing less of their junk, which means business is slow at the county's solid waste division.
True, it did stand about 10 feet tall, a smelly, 90-ton pile of plastic bags, construction debris and broken furniture in the middle of Snohomish County's Airport Road waste transfer station.
Even though it was enough to keep two loaders and an excavator busy sorting and compacting, the rubbish used to rise much higher.
"A year ago, two years ago, we'd easily have twice that amount of garbage," said Middleton, the station's supervisor.
With the economy in the dumps, people are spending less on new houses, furniture and groceries. That means less junk going to landfills.
The slowdown has hurt Snohomish County's solid waste division, which gets paid per ton of trash brought in. The county doesn't directly pick up curbside garbage cans, but it accepts everything that private garbage haulers and county residents bring in. Volumes in 2009 are expected to come in about 100,000 tons lower than budgeted, a loss of about $12 million.
Officials are taking steps to cope. The solid waste division is in the process of laying off about 40 of its 160 employees. The county also is preparing to cut hours at its transfer stations and to close two of five rural drop-off sites.
"We have to reduce the amount of staff proportional to the level of garbage that's coming in," public works director Steve Thomsen said. "We don't have a choice."
Garbage -- and the money it generates -- could even prompt a fight between Snohomish and King counties.
King County contends that it should handle garbage from an area of unincorporated Snohomish County that Bothell wants to annex. King County maintains that an agreement from the late 1980s entitles it to all of the Bothell's garbage, including waste from more than 20,000 residents in the proposed annexation area.
Snohomish County doesn't want to let that happen. Thomsen said that $1.9 million is at stake.
"If King County gets its way, that's going to make our problem worse," he said.
The squabble over Bothell's rubbish could hold up the annexation.
Trash in Snohomish County gets funneled through three transfer stations in Everett, Mountlake Terrace and Arlington, plus five rural drop-off sites.
The Airport Road transfer station next to Paine Field, the county's largest, is a full acre under a single roof, where commercial garbage trucks pull in on one side, and smaller vehicles, such as pickups and station wagons, on the other.
Incoming vehicles pass over scales and are charged a tipping fee based on the weight. They dump their loads on the tipping floor, where orange-suited county employees oversee the sorting and compacting.
The trash gets compressed into shipping containers. Trucks take the packaged waste to a rail yard in north Everett. From there, a train takes it to a landfill in Roosevelt, east of the Cascade Range.
Middleton, the facility supervisor, said that in the past, his staff often filled an average of 35 shipping containers daily. Now, it's more like 27.
The housing slump has had a huge impact because builders are sending less construction debris to landfills. Workers at Airport Road noticed a big dip in September that they attribute to a fall-off in home building.
With the overall drop, Snohomish County expects to take in about 401,000 tons of trash this year, instead of the 505,000 tons it projected when figuring out this year's budget. In dollar terms, that's $46 million in garbage revenue versus $58 million -- or the $12 million drop.
Like the general public, the county's solid waste division plans to hold on to some of its old equipment a little longer to save money. It will spend about $65,000 to upgrade automated scales, instead of buying a new system for about $500,000. It also plans to delay buying new containers for its garbage-hauling trucks.
Commodity prices also are taking a toll on the solid waste division. The county expects to get about $500,000 less this year from the resale of recyclable materials such as scrap metal, cardboard and glass bottles, solid waste director Matt Zybas said. The county is only getting about a third of last year's price for beverage cans, or $400 a ton instead of $1,240. Cardboard, which fetched about $80 a ton last year, isn't worth anything now.
Private companies are feeling the effects of the trash declines to differing degrees.
Waste Management, a corporation that spans North America and has several contracts in Snohomish County, is handling about 15 percent less garbage from the Puget Sound region than last year, spokeswoman Rita Smith said. The company is reducing its routes and drivers accordingly.
Rubatino Refuse Removal, a local company that provides Everett's trash collection, reported that more residential customers have been opting for smaller garbage cans. Some restaurants have changed from three-times-a-week pick ups to once a week.
"In some ways, garbage is more recession-proof than a lot of businesses," office manager Larry Goulet said. "But it isn't totally recession-proof."
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, email@example.com.
- The Buzz: Trash talk 5/3/09
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