Pierce County Updates Its Solid Waste Program

Expansion in organic waste collection is being planned to increase what can be accepted, but might be less than meets the eye.


This spring Pierce County upped its game in collecting organic waste. It will now allow vegetable and fruit trimmings, tea bags and coffee with paper filters in yard waste collected at curbside and transfer stations.

The change was in response to the Organics Management Law passed by the Washington State Legislature in 2022, and in part it requires local governments to provide collection and management of organic materials.

About 20% of what ends up in landfills is organic waste, nearly half of which is edible food, and a quarter yard waste. In landfills, waste is compressed and subject to anaerobic processes that lead to methane production, a potent greenhouse gas. Although about 75% of that is captured for use, a significant amount makes it into the atmosphere. The law is designed to prevent methane production in the first place.

The county is considering what additional kitchen waste it will accept and the impact it may have on its program at Purdy, where yard waste is turned into compost. The current composting process takes just over five weeks and adding other materials may add to the time it takes to produce an equivalent product.

“Our program will be food-focused and not ‘compostable’ focused,” said Ryan Dicks, sustainable resources administrator for Pierce County. “We want to stay confident we have a high-quality product that is in demand and goes back to the land.” It is not likely to include some of the items now allowed in Seattle’s program such as compostable eating utensils, plates and old pizza boxes.

Other aspects of recycling are largely unchanged since 2019. Dicks said that 14% of what is put into trash should be recycled, and 20% of what goes into recycling should go into trash. During the pandemic there was an increase in cardboard and food containers.

“All recycling is local. It needs to have a value, and must be able to be collected, sorted, and sold to a buyer who turns that material into a new product,” Dicks said. “Our philosophy is to focus on things that can be made into new products, and materials that have the biggest impact on reducing greenhouse impact, which are papers and metals. Recycling is not a cure-all. Plastics are not always recyclable, and even if they are they usually can only be used once before they end up in landfill.”

Pierce County Planning and Public Works oversees planning for solid waste in the county and serves more than 280,000 homes. Tacoma has its own system. Murrey’s Disposal, a member of the Waste Connections family of companies, contracts with the county to provide curbside pickup for garbage, recycling and yard waste on the Key Peninsula. Pioneer Recycling manages recycled materials.

“Unequivocally things are recycled,” said Murrey’s District Manager Josh Metcalf. “We are a hauler. We have no vested interest in where it goes.” He said, though, that occasionally a driver may think he is helping a colleague by picking up a recycle load and saving him a trip. If that happens, he said, the driver is coached.

Everything from Pierce County ends up in the same locations. Garbage is taken to a 320-acre landfill site in Graham. Yard waste is turned into compost at Purdy. Mixed recycling (plastic and paper) is consolidated at Purdy and taken to the materials recovery facility in Frederickson to be sorted and distributed for reprocessing.

Dick explained the restrictions on what is accepted in the recycling program. Glass breaks in recycling bins and contaminates paper. It is not collected curbside, even separately, because the energy it takes to collect at households exceeds any benefit. Glass can be taken to transfer stations and is then sent to Seattle for remanufacture.

Paper cartons are often coated with plastic and are not recyclable and should be placed in the trash can. Plastic bags gum up the sorting machines and can’t be mixed with other recyclables. They can be dropped off at the Key Center Market for remanufacture into products like composite decking.

Recycling plastics can be confusing because rules vary from municipality to municipality. Don’t bother trying to decide if something can be recycled based on the resin identification numbers — those triangles enclosing numbers from one to seven, said Karen Hultgren, recycling and solid waste analyst, in a county presentation last October.

In Pierce County, she said, plastics are recycled based on size and shape. Bottles, jugs, tubs and buckets can be recycled. Clamshells and other containers will collapse and end up getting sorted as paper. Lids and caps cause the same problem and should be placed in the trash.

Mixed paper and cardboard are valuable, as are aluminum and steel cans. Cardboard should be flattened and packing tape removed. It is not necessary to remove staples. Cans should not be flattened, and paper labels do not need to be removed. A quick rinse is sufficient for cleaning containers and cans.

The Pierce County Solid Waste Advisory Committee serves in an advisory capacity on matters relating to solid waste and recycling. It includes community members and business professionals. There are openings for members from unincorporated Pierce County. “We would love to have someone from the Key Peninsula,” Dicks said. Applications are available on the Planning and Public Works website at www.piercecountywa.gov.