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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Household recycling manager James Tieken isn’t discouraged by grim statistics

James Tieken runs the City of Spokane’s household recycling program. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

James Tieken knows recycling alone can’t save the world.

Humans are too good at consuming.

Take travel, for instance. To offset the greenhouse effect of one seat aboard a round-trip flight between Spokane and New York, you’d have to recycle 30,000 plastic bottles.

But grim statistics don’t discourage Tieken, the city of Spokane’s recycling supervisor. He loves his work.

“When I first started driving back in 1997,” he recalls gleefully, “we had to sort everything. Plastics went into a face-height compactor, and if they had any liquid in them, it would splash back on you. So if you came back smelling like sour milk, the boss figured you’d done a good job.”

Today’s single-stream recycling and $350,000 automated trucks have made the work less messy, but it’s not risk-free.

“Drivers have to get out of their truck to collect batteries and extra recycling,” Tieken explains, “and our rear-load guys hop out at every stop. Refuse collection still ranks among America’s top 10 most dangerous jobs.”

During a recent interview, Tieken described the economics of recycling, and ways residents can make the system more efficient.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Tieken: Near Eighth and Pines. I graduated from Central Valley.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class?

Tieken: I really liked math. Also auto mechanics, welding – working with my hands.

S-R: What was your first job?

Tieken: Setting targets for weekend trap shooters at the Spokane Gun Club when I was 13 or 14. It was really fun.

S-R: And after high school?

Tieken: I went to work for the Conley family at their White Elephant Stores in 1989. Great folks to work for.

S-R: What did you do?

Tieken: I drove trucks between the North Side and Valley stores, unloaded freight and helped stock shelves. Sometimes I’d work behind the counter, watch for shoplifters, paint a building – anything they needed.

S-R: When did you join the city?

Tieken: In 1997. A buddy of mine who had worked as a seasonal employee told me about taking a civil service test. I decided to take it, too, did well and was offered a position called recycler.

S-R: What did that job entail?

Tieken: Driving a truck – we called it “the lizard” – stopping at each house and taking the bin to the truck, where I’d sort green glass, brown glass and clear glass. Metals all went together, and newspapers and cardboard went into the back of the truck. Later I worked as a floater, which exposed me to different routes, different trucks, and gave me a lot of city knowledge.

S-R: Did skills you learned at White Elephant transfer to this career?

Tieken: Absolutely – particularly flexibility. As a floater and a supervisor, I’ve had to deal with constant change.

S-R: Has your lack of a college education been an obstacle?

Tieken: Maybe. But what has helped me most as a supervisor is my on-the-job experience – knowing what my employees go through every day.

S-R: What metals does the city recycle?

Tieken: Aluminum and tin cans, and almost any scrap metal that fits into the cart and don’t have sharp edges.

S-R: How about plastics?

Tieken: Any food container numbered one through seven. We don’t want automotive containers – oil, antifreeze – due to potential contaminants. And no plastic bags.

S-R: Paper?

Tieken: Most paper products, including pizza boxes, as long as the pizza is removed. But not cardboard that has been waxed so it can hold a liquid. We also don’t want shredded paper, because it clogs the machinery at the sorting center.

S-R: What items do people put in their recycling carts by mistake?

Tieken: General household garbage is one of the big things. Also baby diapers. And there’s some confusion about yard waste, which we don’t want in the recycling cart.

S-R: How much of the material delivered to the sorting plant can’t be recycled?

Tieken: Around 8 percent. I attribute that partly to people wanting us to be able to take more. For instance, they’d like us to be able to recycle Styrofoam, but we can’t.

S-R: How can we be better recyclers?

Tieken: It would help us immensely if people put their blue cart out only when it’s full.

S-R: Some people assume recycling is lucrative. Is it?

Tieken: No, but it’s cheaper than burning everything. In September, we paid about $71 a ton to drop things off at the sorting plant. But we earned almost $50 per ton from the sale of recyclables. So that worked out to just over $21 per ton to recycle material, compared with $102 a ton we pay to dump things off at the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

S-R: Which items are most valuable?

Tieken: Metal and cardboard. With oil prices so low, the market for most plastics is zero. It’s not costing us to recycle them, but we’re not getting anything back.

S-R: How about glass?

Tieken: We actually lose money on glass. It costs us $37.50 a ton to dispose of glass on top of the $71.32 recycling fee. So it would be cheaper to process glass as trash than to recycle it.

S-R: Then why not toss it?

Tieken: Even though glass has a negative impact on our bottom line, recycling it makes us feel like better stewards of the Earth. And when it comes to recycling versus consumption, I don’t think we can ever make both sides of the equation equal.

S-R: How much do your drivers earn?

Tieken: Between $15.59 and $26.91 an hour, depending on classification and seniority.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?

Tieken: People who are in shape, because when you start out, you’re usually the guy on the back of the truck, running back and forth getting cans for eight, nine, 10 hours a day in temperatures anywhere from below zero to above 100 degrees.

S-R: Are all your drivers men?

Tieken: We have one female driver in recycling, and one who collects refuse.

S-R: Have the carts and side loaders reduced the job’s inherent risks?

Tieken: Switching to semi-automated and automated recycling has meant that we aren’t breaking people like we used to. In the old days, when we had guys throwing cans, that made a 50-year-old man really, really old, and he was no longer capable of doing the work.

S-R: Are there favorite collection routes?

Tieken: Our North Side routes are more popular because they’re flatter and don’t have as many worries in winter.

S-R: Do drivers get to pick their routes?

Tieken: When a route opens up, drivers can request it, and it’s reassigned based on classification and seniority.

S-R: What has surprised you most about your job since becoming supervisor in 2013?

Tieken: How much goes on behind the scene in the office to make collection possible each day – the logistics of handling calls, filling vacancies.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Tieken: Interacting with the community. Yesterday I was at a job fair for District 81 elementary schools. Wow. There was a whole lot of energy in that room.

S-R: What do you like least?

Tieken: Some mornings can be rough. My schedule starts at 5:30.

S-R: Do you drive a truck anymore?

Tieken: On occasion, if we’re shorthanded, as long as I call the president of the bargaining unit and get permission.

S-R: Do you look forward to those days?

Tieken: Yes. I miss being in a truck. Believe it or not, they’re a lot of fun.

This interview has been edited and condensed. If you have suggestions for business or community leaders to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil via email at