Recycling maintains high rate in Spokane County

Ann Murphy
Education Coordinator
Spokane Regional Solid Waste System
Spokane, Washington

The Spokane Area has had a long tradition of recycling—and for the past decade has maintained an average 41% rate for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) recycling, as defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 2004 MSW recycling rate of 44% is a piece of the Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan that also includes waste-to-energy.

Additionally, Spokane County is just beginning to document the long-time efforts in recycling of non-MSW materials, such as waste oil, tires, and waste wood used for energy recovery plus asphalt and concrete. For 2004 the recycling rate for the non-MSW materials was 40%.

The challenge for communities throughout the United States in achieving high recycling rates is to integrate recycling with their disposal method. Spokane's experience and history has proven that waste-to-energy and recycling are compatible. Early critics had said that if MSW was being incinerated, there would be no incentive for recycling. The past 20 years have been a collaborative process of working together with regional political jurisdictions and the private sector.

The 1984 Spokane County Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan noted that while there was no organized recycling program, there were numerous privately-owned companies that accepted recyclable materials for resource recovery. The most common materials accepted were ferrous and nonferrous metals, aluminum, glass, paper and waste oil. A variety of nonprofit groups collected recyclables as well.

One approach that many communities have investigated for managing solid waste is a regional one. The Spokane Regional Solid Waste System (System) formed in 1988 through interlocal agreements among all of the political jurisdictions in Spokane County to develop an integrated plan that included waste reduction, a more aggressive recycling program, energy recovery (waste-to-energy) and minimal landfilling. The first recycling rate posted in 1987 was at 20%. That program and the recycling rate have continued to grow.

Legislation in Washington State in May 1989 declared that waste reduction and recycling must become the first priority for solid waste management in the state. Washington State Department of Ecology further required Spokane County to develop a comprehensive recycling plan as a condition of the grant agreement for construction of Spokane's Waste to Energy Facility. That 1989 plan included a strategy to implement a residential curbside program for collecting recyclables. Collection started in October 1990 in the City of Spokane and was implemented in other areas of the County a year later. The recycling collection in areas of the County outside the City of Spokane was, at that time, provided by a number of different private haulers. The System developed the Recycling Centers at its three disposal sites so that citizens could drop off recyclables at the same time they "dumped" garbage. The System provided the planning, developed uniform programs, and devised a consistent message for less user confusion and better participation. In Spokane we have found it to be effective to rely on informed users, rather than employing punitive measures. Recyclables collected are brokered by private recycling buy-back centers.

Since that time of inception, programs have expanded so that residents in Spokane County have opportunities to recycle even more items in curbside programs, the System's Recycling Centers, and private buy-back centers.
A significant component of any community's waste stream is organic yard and garden debris. In 1993 the System constructed and started operating a centralized composting facility for "Clean Green" yard and garden debris. By 1997, the various haulers were offering curbside collection for yard waste, thus increasing the amount of material recycled. Due to a contract change, less organic material was composted during much of 2002, resulting in a significantly lower recycling rate. In 2003 the System began working with the current private contractor to compost the material that is delivered to System facilities by either the haulers with curbside loads or citizen drop-offs in the "Clean Green" Program. In 2004, over 49,000 tons of organics were composted (a significant part of the recycling rate).

  Metals recovery at Spokane's Waste-to-Energy Facility

Metals Recycling
Nationwide scrap metal is an important part of recycling, but if it is landfilled this recycling opportunity is lost. Spokane has taken metals recycling a step further through a unique component—the ferrous metal recovered from the ash residue at the Waste-to-Energy plant is recycled. That metal accounted for nearly 9,000 tons in the 2004 Recycling Rate. The recovered metal is baled and brokered for recycling by a private recycler. Additionally, in 2004 the 279,310 tons of trash processed at the Waste-to-Energy plant produced 179,121 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity with a net revenue of $12,609,695.


Many communities do not enjoy the benefits and access to recycling markets that are available to coastal or economic port communities. Spokane's location does not facilitate easy access to recycling markets, and thus we prioritize the collection of materials based on market availability.

Regional Approach
The Spokane Regional Solid Waste System coordinates consistent recycling messages so that all residents of Spokane County know how to participate in recycling programs. As a result of public and private efforts working together, Spokane County enjoys one of the highest recycling rates in Washington State. The continuing challenge in recycling, nationally as well as in Spokane, is that while we are recycling more tons of material, we are also disposing of more tons of trash. In order to maintain and increase recycling rates, governments, citizens, businesses and private enterprise must work together to reduce the amount of trash disposed.

Ann Murphy can be reached at (509) 625-6535 or For more information on Spokane's Waste-to-Energy plant, including a history of the project, please go to