Diving into the Dumpster Problem on Capitol Hill: PART 1 of 2

dumpster picDumpsters. They’re as commonplace on Capitol Hill streets as dogs and tattoos. The straight garbage dumpsters are maintained by Recology CleanScapes, which has a contract with the City at least until 2017. Customers pay for this service through their bill from Seattle Public Utilities. Recycling and compost collection is a bit more complicated. Different haulers, including Recology CleanScapes, Waste Management, Cedar Grove, Republic Services and Allied Waste, compete for contracts with individual businesses or building owners. You might see their different company logos peeking out from under graffiti on the many containers on our sidewalks, in our alleys and even parked semi-permanently in street parking spots in Capitol Hill’s commercial corridors.

Some residents may shrug or not even notice the many dumpsters, so familiar are they within the fabric of our neighborhood. But there is reason for concern as the neighborhood continues growing. More people means more trash and it has to go somewhere. In new buildings, code requires the inclusion of a trash room that is off of the street, but older buildings, especially those being retrofit for much denser occupation, don’t have trash rooms. There, the de facto trash room becomes the curb, alley or sidewalk.

During the summer of 2015, we worked with Seattle Public Utilities and haulers to document the challenges posed by dumpsters in Capitol Hill’s commercial corridors. In January, Capitol Hill Housing issued a report that names 9 specific problems associated with the many dumpsters.
1. Dumpsters block sidewalks and on-street parking spaces;
2. Dumpsters attract graffiti and illegal dumping;
3. Spills and liquids drain from dumpsters to the street and storm drains (violation of Seattle Municipal Code 22.803.030);
4. Dumpsters are a source of fire and litter from overflows and scavenging;
5. Dumpster odors detract from livability;
6. Dumpsters attract public urination, defecation, vomiting and illegal drug activity;
7. Private storage of dumpsters on sidewalks and in streets is an inappropriate use of public space;
8. Unenforced regulations of dumpsters create an impression that the issue is unimportant to the City;
9. Dumpsters create blind spots that exacerbate nighttime safety concerns.

This is a growing challenge, but not necessarily new or unique to Capitol Hill. About four years ago, Seattle Public Utilities approached Capitol Hill businesses to propose that Capitol Hill join Pioneer Square, the International District and Columbia City as a “Designated Clear Alleys neighborhood” and move off dumpsters to a pre-paid bag service with more frequent collection. Business leaders protested that the shortage of alleys in Capitol Hill made the Clear Alleys Program untenable up here.

We searched for alternative solutions in other US cities. In Downtown Denton, Texas, the City encourages screening dumpsters behind 6 foot tall masonry walls with steel doors. The Iowa City Downtown District recommended testing consolidated waste hauling contracts in a small pilot area to reduce the number of haulers. The Paseo District in Oklahoma City focused on enclosures, right-sizing containers, and installing compactors to improve efficiency, and in Portland, Oregon, the City settled on phasing in tougher enforcement of existing illegal dumpster storage and some financial assistance to smaller businesses to aid compliance.

Following our work to document the issue and research solutions, we offered 15 mitigation strategies to be considered for Capitol Hill. These strategies are grouped into 4 categories:
1. Enforce rules and assist compliance
2. Increase the frequency of service (to allow the reduction of container sizes)
3. Screen and beautify dumpsters
4. Improve sharing of infrastructure among businesses.

You can read more about these strategies in our report linked HERE.