It's not hard to sell the idea of recycling in a city as environmentally conscious as Seattle. But the tough part, as solid waste managers across the country know only too well, is making "feel-good" programs economically feasible. Seattle Public Utilities Director Diana Gale has managed to accomplish that through the use of bottom-line management that has shown that protecting the environment can be a practical use of government resources.
A decade ago, Seattle scrapped a planned garbage incinerator and instead set an ambitious goal for diverting trash from its waste stream: 60 percent by 1998. Gale, previously a city council legislative director who was named to head Seattle's solid waste agency in 1988, revamped the municipal trash-handling system to take maximum economic advantage of the public's enthusiasm for recycling. The city's 240,000 households reached the 60 percent target by 1995, while the overall rate jumped to 44 percent from 28 percent in the same period. Although Seattle hasn't achieved the overall goal, the city has emerged as a national model for how governments can deal with solid waste problems with a finely tuned mix of convenient curbside service, yard-waste composting, hazardous-waste collection sites, and sharp financial incentives for throwing out less trash.
Gale's agency substantially raised collection charges for the most wasteful households, and gave residents even bigger breaks the more they recycled. Customers now select among five different garbage can sizes, ranging from 90-gallon bins down to 12-gallon "micro" containers. Monthly garbage rates drop precipitously, from $48.25 for the largest containers down to $10.05 for the smallest. "We've made conservation the option of choice for our customers," Gale says.
The result: Between 1988 and 1995, while Seattle's population grew by 5 percent, the amount of solid waste being landfilled annually decreased by 8.5 percent. City Councilor Margaret Pageler, who chairs the council's environment committee, also credits Gale with cutting a good deal for the city in "highly technical, hard-headed negotiating" with Seattle's three private garbage and recycling collection contractors.
Gale is now bringing her approach to another environmental challenge: keeping Seattle's municipal drinking water clean. Three years ago, when she took over managing the troubled system, Seattle faced a $1 billion backlog of projects it needed to complete over the next 10 years to replace decaying infrastructure and meet federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulations. Gale persuaded the city to begin raising water rates 9 percent a year to cover those improvements, but she also shaved 25 percent off the total cost with what Pageler calls "very savvy business management."
By employing a" design-build-operate" contracting process, for example, Gale's agency trimmed $20 million from the projected cost of a new filtration plant for Seattle's Tolt River water supply. Gale also convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Seattle could use less-expensive ozonization technology instead of building another filtration plant to treat its main water supply from the Cedar River watershed.
Last year, Gale was a logical choice to be director of the newly formed Seattle Public Utilities, which manages both the pioneering water and solid waste programs as well as sewers, drainage, and engineering services. She's convinced that protecting environmental values through sustainable long-term thinking is usually the most practical way to govern. "Your best environmental solutions," Gale says, "tend to be your least-cost solutions if you're careful about them."
Photo by Rich Frishman