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Curbside recycling in Whatcom County started 25 years ago, but volunteers jump-started the practice

Steve Berry is Sanitary Service Company Inc.'s most senior recycling driver, having started with the original curbside program.  He estimates he's personally lifted about 50 million pounds during his 6,000-plus days on the route.
Steve Berry is Sanitary Service Company Inc.'s most senior recycling driver, having started with the original curbside program. He estimates he's personally lifted about 50 million pounds during his 6,000-plus days on the route. COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

On July 4, Whatcom County residents will celebrate our nation's independence.

On July 3, without formal celebration, residents will mark 25 years since local governments started curbside recycling.

That might not sound like a big deal, because sorting newspapers, scrap paper, cans and glass and plastic containers is an expected part of garbage collection these days.

“Everyone has the recycling option now and everyone is using it,” said Dan Leidecker, the founder of Nooksack Valley Disposal & Recycling, which began residential pickup of recyclables for its north-county customers on July 3, 1989.

It wasn’t so many years ago when household recycling required personal dedication, rather than convenient weekly routine, on the part of residents.

People had to set aside newspapers for pickup drives, haul cardboard to the Georgia Pacific mill and drive their recyclables to businesses or to Western Washington University for drop-off.

"It was very difficult to recycle," said Carol Rondello of Bellingham, an early proponent.

For many people in Bellingham, curbside recycling became a reality several years before it became part of government's approach to garbage.

Reflecting the rise of environmental awareness, the League of Women Voters studied solid waste issues, and the local chapter began recycling for its members. In 1982, Rondello and other volunteers organized curbside recycling, starting in Birchwood neighborhood and soon spreading to other neighborhoods.

Within five years, 10 neighborhoods had curbside pickup - some weekly, some monthly - under an umbrella group called Bellingham Community Recycling. Those 10 neighborhoods accounted for nearly two out of every three households in Bellingham, thanks, in part, to crucial help from the recycling center at Western, where students pioneered campus recycling in 1971.

Bellingham's was the largest volunteer-run recycling program in the country, Rondello said, but the idea from the get-go was to convince the city of Bellingham to carry the load.

"Our goal was never to be recyclers," she said. "It was to show the city the public wanted and embraced it."

The push for recycling got a boost from broader issues in solid waste, too. A new state law made recycling a higher priority.

Meanwhile, environmental rules contributed to the closure of Whatcom County's landfills. Incinerating garbage presented its own problems, and hauling trash to landfills in Eastern Washington wasn't cheap, so recycling became a smart way to cut the cost of disposal.

The opportunity for city-run recycling arose when Bellingham's garbage contract came up for renewal in 1989. With input from community advocates, the city make curbside pickup part of the new contract, and adopted the three-bin system used today.

Some cities let residents put their recyclables into one bin. Having residents sort their recyclables at home reduces the cost of separating the items later, and results in less cross-contamination of the materials.

"It was designed correctly from the very beginning," said Jack Weiss, the City Council member who first came to Bellingham to oversee the volunteer recyclers and later became the recycling coordinator for Whatcom County.

The city of Bellingham doesn't plan any ceremonies to mark curbside recycling's silver anniversary. That's fine, because when it comes to trash, the best practice is to just keep following best practices.

"It really has become a way of life for us in the Northwest," said Tim Douglas, who was mayor when Bellingham took over curbside recycling. "It's something we should all be proud of."


- Washington state's overall recycling rate reached 50.1 percent in 2012, the most recent year calculated. It was the second year in a row the rate topped the 50 percent goal set by a 1989 state law.

- In 2013, Whatcom County residents (excluding Point Roberts) recycled the following amounts of residential recyclables:

Cardboard: 1,313.5 tons

Mixed paper: 4,229.5 tons

Newspaper: 339.5 tons

Plastic, glass, and aluminum and tin cans: 5,101.7 tons

Sources: Washington Department of Ecology, Nooksack Valley Disposal & Recycling, Sanitary Service Co.