Last year, Spokane received national recognition for its approach to garbage collection, recycling and composting organic material.
“We got the bronze award for having one of the best integrated solid-waste systems in North America,” said Scott Windsor, director of the city’s solid waste management.
“The city of San Jose, Calif., won the gold award,” he noted. “What I’m most proud of is that we do 98 percent of what they do for less than half the cost.”
But Windsor sees room for improvement.
That’s why he wants to switch the city’s collection truck fleet from diesel power to compressed natural gas, which he says is cheaper, quieter and less polluting.
During a recent interview, Windsor reflected on how far we’ve come since the city’s landfills were closed more than two decades ago and what residents can do to make Spokane’s solid-waste system work more efficiently.
S-R: How did you end up managing garbage?
Windsor: I started out interested in forestry, but switched to research and earned a degree in microbiology from Eastern Washington University. After graduation, I worked for the University of Washington as a virologist at the primate field station in Medical Lake. Our focus was vaccine development and anti-viral drugs for HIV.
S-R: What caused you to change careers?
Windsor: Being laid off by the University of Washington when they closed the primate facility. They offered me a job in Seattle, but I chose to stay in Spokane.
S-R: What was your first job with the city?
Windsor: I was the hazardous waste coordinator for 10 years. Next I was disposal operations superintendent, and eventually director of solid waste management.
S-R: Did your laboratory experience help when you became a manager?
Windsor: Yes, because when you design experiments, you have to take into consideration a lot of variables and try to minimize their influence. That applies here whenever we make changes, like when we switched from curb sorting to single-stream recycling in 2012. Research we did prior to making the change helped us focus our marketing where the emphasis was most needed.
S-R: Did you have a mentor in city management?
Windsor: Several. Roger Flint (former director of public works) and Gerry Gemmill (former interim director of the city’s utilities department) were both very helpful.
S-R: What lessons stuck with you?
Windsor: Try not to overreact. Get all the facts before you act.
S-R: What was the big turning point for waste management in Spokane?
Windsor: Building the waste-to-energy plant in 1991 was a radical change. Rather than burying material in landfills, we’re able to recover the energy, and the (ash byproduct) is relatively inert. When you put raw garbage in a landfill, it decomposes and you have to deal with gas. We still have two closed landfills that we’re monitoring. Those things keep going and going.
S-R: So the $110 million waste-to-energy plant was a good investment?
Windsor: I think so. It would be nice if the state would recognize the electricity it generates as renewable, because then we’d earn more selling it.
S-R: How else has the system evolved?
Windsor: The other big change has been automated collection – trucks that mechanically empty the (residential) carts. That allows drivers to do more with less, which helps keep our costs low. And automation has greatly improved safety. About half our injuries in recent years occurred when drivers got out of their trucks to service recycling bins.
S-R: Is the volume of waste we generate fairly consistent?
Windsor: January and February tend to be the two slowest months, probably because people cut back on consumption after the Christmas holidays.
S-R: What other trends have you noticed?
Windsor: Nationally, there’s a big emphasis on aiming for zero waste, which is neat. But until someone comes up with a solution for things like dirty diapers, we’ll still need the waste-to-energy plant. And the fees we charge for the collection and disposal of waste help pay for other vital services, such as our recycling and household hazardous-waste programs.
S-R: Is Waste Management’s $22 million SMaRT (Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology) processing center working out as hoped?
Windsor: As far as I know. I’m not sure what Waste Management’s expectations were. I’m glad they chose to build it here rather than somewhere else, because it’s great for the community. But in order for that plant to function properly, you need a population base of about 1 million people. So they need to accept recyclables from throughout the state, as well as from Idaho and Canada, to generate the volume to make it pencil out.
S-R: Since joining the city’s solid-waste division, have your own habits evolved?
Windsor: I recycle much more now than I used to, and I think about whether a product’s container is recyclable. For instance, when Sony sells you a television, usually it’s in a molded cardboard container, so once you remove the TV, almost the entire container is recyclable. Styrofoam is one of the worst materials ever made. You can’t recycle it, and it takes up tremendous volume.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Windsor: I have an exceptional staff. Each month, we have about 650,000 points of service that either we get right or we don’t. My staff is committed to providing the best service possible.
S-R: What do you like least?
Windsor: Having to fire someone. You try to correct behavior, but sometimes that doesn’t work.
S-R: Do you receive angry calls and emails from customers?
Windsor: We do. What’s interesting is that callers can be extremely abusive to one of my clerks, and then when they get to me, they’re nicer than nice.
S-R: What other feedback do you get?
Windsor: People call at 9:30 a.m. wanting to know if they were missed, because their garbage is usually collected by 9. Virtually all of our trucks have GPS, so we can see where drivers are on their route. Sometimes pickups are a little late because of bad weather or a substitute driver, so we encourage customers to be patient.
S-R: Are there common misconceptions about the city’s waste-management system?
Windsor: There’s the idea that we bring in a lot of money from recyclables. The markets are very volatile – sometimes we make money, and other times we have to pay to recycle the same material. Overall, we pretty much break even.
S-R: What mistakes do people make when sorting waste and recyclables?
Windsor: The main one is putting plastic grocery bags in their recycling containers (instead of with their garbage). The bags tend to gum up the machinery at the recycling center.
S-R: What changes are ahead for your department?
Windsor: We’re looking forward to switching over to natural-gas collection trucks starting in the fall of 2015. Garbage trucks’ stop-and-go driving pattern is ideally suited for compressed natural gas.
S-R: As our attitudes toward waste reduction and recycling have evolved, has the image of garbage collecting as a profession improved?
Windsor: I think it has, and our employees deserve that respect. They have to negotiate some pretty challenging obstacles – narrow alleys, for instance – on a daily basis.
S-R: How much do they earn?
Windsor: Entry level collectors start at $15.57 a hour, and max out at $26.91.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in job applicants?
Windsor: They need to be customer-service oriented and independent. It also helps to be environmentally concerned. And they need an easy demeanor, because they’re out there driving large trucks in all sorts of traffic and weather conditions. I would get frustrated if I had to do it.