Chris Martin is busting open garbage bags in a Georgetown lot—three days' worth of accumulated waste from two downtown office buildings. He won't say which buildings they are. That's because (a) the tenants are mostly environmental advocacy groups, and (b) the results of this "garbage audit" are not going to be pretty.
Martin and his crew dump the contents on the ground, forming heaps of banana peels, coffee cups, energy-bar wrappers, McDonald's packaging, plastic bags, water bottles, bunched-up paper, and other by-products of office life. They sort through it all with rakes and hands, separating out the recyclables from the true trash—that is, doing what the tenants should have done in the first place.
A half-hour or so into the exam, a crew member tears open a pair of bags piled high with recyclable paper, and a ripple of excitement runs through the group. They're like cops who've just found the rock of cocaine they knew was hiding somewhere.
"See, this is classic," says Martin, gleefully peering over the bags through his goggles. (Gardening gloves, shorts, and a neon yellow-green vest complete his uniform.) He retrieves the topmost document on the pile—a report on "sustainable-housing" trends—and is almost giddy at the irony: The greens failed to recycle a report on going green. It's not just hypocritical, "it's against the law," he notes.
He tosses the report into a recycling cart where, eventually, 433 pounds of improperly thrown-out material accumulates. Food scraps that could have been composted add another 55 pounds. He'll deliver these stats to the buildings' tenants, who've enlisted Martin's trash-hauling and street-cleaning company, CleanScapes, to assess their performance.
If Martin is allowed to implement what he calls "my best idea, my get-people-riled-up thing," we could all soon be subject to a kind of garbage audit, too. He wants to bring the equivalent of the red-light camera to your front curb. Just as the traffic camera captures you running through a stoplight, CleanScapes' incriminating photos would catch you improperly disposing of a milk carton. (It belongs in the recycling bin.)
"We could do it the nice way," he says, meaning his company would e-mail you pictures of your detritus, along with helpful information about separating out recyclables. Or, he says, CleanScapes could send the pictures on to municipal inspectors, and "the city could enforce its own laws." (While the city has sent warning letters, no fines have ever been issued, according to Seattle Public Utilities.)
Getting Seattle to clean up its trash act is something of an obsession for Martin. To him, waste disposal isn't just about where and how we haul our refuse; it's a form of social engineering. He started his company 10 years ago with a campaign to rid Pioneer Square of Dumpsters—a solution, he said, to the problems of filth and filthy behavior among alley denizens. "I know it sounds far-fetched, but I'm convinced that [Dumpsters] hide a lot of problems," he says. He's since expanded his niche business to other Seattle neighborhoods and even down the West Coast, serving restaurants and other waste-heavy commercial customers with Dumpster-free rubbish removal and other services.
Now Martin stands poised to have an even bigger influence on Seattle's future. He's made an improbable bid for a piece of the citywide garbage-collection contract. And last month he improbably learned he was a finalist.
Garbage pickup is the biggest contract the city has, apart from electricity, and Seattle has long divided it up among the industry's biggest players, most recently Texas-based Waste Management and Arizona-based Allied Waste Industries. Together they had $20 billion in 2006 revenue. But last month, when Seattle Public Utilities named finalists for the contract, there was a third company on the list: CleanScapes, which had all of $6 million in revenue last year.
If Martin is awarded a piece of the municipal business on Oct. 23, CleanScapes would become one of the first "boutique" garbage haulers to win such a contract in a major urban center.
CleanScapes is tapping into the new garbage morality that arose with the recycling age and has only gotten more intense. To those who follow the creed, there's a right and a wrong way to treat your trash, and Martin is quick to tell you which is which. Asked during the garbage audit about the proper way to handle plastic baggies, he replies, "You should bloody well use wax-paper baggies." (Who knew there was such a thing? Apparently, they can be thrown in the compost bin.)
For someone like this, it's a good time to enter the garbage business. The Seattle City Council recently passed a so-called "Zero Waste" policy, which sets new targets for reducing the amount of Seattle trash—438,000 tons of it last year—that we send off by train to an Oregon landfill. A third of this landfilled material could be composted, according to a recent SPU report. But right now, only 60 percent of single-family homes in the city even have a yard bin, let alone use it.
Under the new garbage contract, which starts April 1, 2009, single-family homeowners will be required to at least have the bin, and will be encouraged to put all their food scraps (except meat and dairy) in it. The city's even considering a trade, whereby garbage pickup would be reduced to every other week, and compost pickup would be weekly. That could help alleviate health department concerns that currently keep meat and dairy out of the compost mix. The city wants to get more restaurants and other food businesses signed up for composting as well—only 10 percent currently are—and to design a compost system for apartment buildings.
"This is one of those big steps," says Timothy Croll, Seattle Public Utilities' solid waste director. He says the new contract's emphasis on composting will be comparable in impact to when the city introduced curbside recycling in 1989.
With City Council approval, SPU will select either two or three companies for the contract, meaning it's possible that all three bidders will get a share of the business. Cost will be a major factor in evaluating the bids, of course, as will the companies' track records and financial strength. SPU will also consider the bidders' proposed innovations for minimizing waste. For the first time, contract provisions will offer financial incentives to companies that see garbage in their territory reduced.
"All things being equal," Croll says, "we would like to have somebody who's red-hot for recycling."
That's where Martin may have an edge.
He pitches himself as the green alternative to the big guys, a kind of anti-garbage garbage man. Unlike the city's contractors, for example, CleanScapes already incorporates composting automatically into its collection service for food establishments. The company even takes their fryer oil for free and has it converted to biodiesel to power the CleanScapes trucks. What more could an uptight Seattleite—or Richard Conlin, City Council's presiding Zero Waste guru—want?
Martin started the company in 1997. He had been in Seattle for seven years, having moved here shortly after graduating from Vassar College in order to train at the Lake Washington Rowing Club. He was gunning for a position on either the Olympic team or a competitive, amateur national team. He never made either. He had better luck at his day job at the advertising agency now known as DDB. Starting in the mail room, he rose in short order to the position of account executive. But after "shoving paper around" and "sucking up to clients" like McDonald's, he decided that "the last thing the world needs is another Quarter Pounder." He took off for a six-month trek along the Appalachian Trail. When he returned, he set himself up as a marketing consultant. He chose as his abode a second-floor apartment overlooking an alley in Pioneer Square.
That was how he became intimately acquainted with garbage and its accoutrements—the Dumpsters; the lowlifes who hid around them, and sometimes in them, to drink, sell drugs, and have sex; the noisy garbage trucks that made warning sounds numerous times in every alley as they positioned themselves to empty each Dumpster; the mess he says was left after the trucks tipped the Dumpsters upside down over their hoppers, spilling debris in the process.
"It was like there was nobody responsible," he says.
In his characteristically blunt way, Martin started making his opinions known to community and city leaders. "He's not shy," says longtime Pioneer Square resident and businesswoman Tina Bueche, owner of a clothing store called Synapse 206. "He probably articulated more forcefully, but not necessarily without accuracy, what a lot of people were thinking and feeling."
He penned a long, scathing screed to then-Mayor Norm Rice in which he complained about the dirt and crime in the neighborhood's alleys. To his surprise, one of the mayor's aides, a man named Jim Hammond, met him for lunch at the Grand Central Bakery to talk it over. Martin pressed Hammond for better cleaning of the alleys. Hammond told him there wasn't much he could do.
"I crossed paths with him not much later and he's wearing overalls," says Hammond, now a communications manager for Sound Transit. "I said, 'What's all this about?'" Martin had decided to do it on his own.
He started by offering services that were auxiliary to garbage collection: removing litter and graffiti, hosing down properties. What was then called the Pioneer Square Community Council was offering a similar service (as does the business-funded Metropolitan Improvement District today). But Martin felt the council's program wasn't effective enough. Many businesses apparently agreed, and signed on with CleanScapes.
When that proved successful, he launched the first garbage-collection system in the country that eliminated Dumpsters (excluding New York City, where a lot of properties don't have room for them). His idea was simple: use garbage bags instead.
Martin became a ubiquitous Pioneer Square figure, the preppy-looking Vassar grad out on the streets in coveralls, sometimes picking up trash himself and posting signs around the neighborhood that read "Only trash litters" and "Butts are litter too."
He ran into trouble with Rabanco, a formerly Seattle-owned firm now owned by Allied, which had the city contract for garbage in Pioneer Square. "It sent us a letter saying we were tortiously interfering with their contract," Martin says. The Teamsters were also concerned that CleanScapes was taking away union jobs by reducing Rabanco's workload. So Martin agreed to an arrangement whereby CleanScapes would bring the garbage to its own lot, store it there (in Dumpsters, ironically enough), and then Allied and Waste Management would take it from there. This arrangement still gave the city's contractors their fee.
To square this dance rhetorically with the municipal contract, the city came up with the creative idea of calling CleanScapes a "janitorial company," which "consolidated" rather than "collected" garbage. The health department, once worried that Martin's easily ripped bags could encourage rats, dropped its concerns when CleanScapes promised to pick up the bags daily, and sometimes thrice daily.
Word began to get out that CleanScapes was having some success in Pioneer Square. The child of two successful journalists—a father who was a senior editor at Newsweek and a mother who was a New York Times editor—Martin proved a willing press subject, and the publicity paid off. CleanScapes brought its street-cleaning and garbage-collection services to other neighborhoods, including the University District, Capitol Hill, and Columbia City. The company also expanded to Portland, where it cleans a variety of public spaces including Pioneer Courthouse Square, and to San Francisco, where it cleans the Ferry Building, among other areas.
CleanScapes' system has some ardent fans. Assistant Seattle Police Chief James Pugel says that Dumpster-free alleys are "definitely" safer. "You get a much more open and cleaner line of sight for anybody walking by."
Anthony Ferrara, kitchen manager of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Columbia City, says that before he started using CleanScapes last year, he had continual problems with the city's contractor in the area, Waste Management. Sometimes the alley where the pizzeria keeps its garbage would be blocked. But the Waste Management drivers "wouldn't call," he says, "and then they'd just leave." The Dumpster would overflow as it sat for as long as a week until the next pickup. "There'd be birds. There'd be seagulls. It'd just be crazy. I'd be out there picking up garbage. I don't need to be doing this. I run a million-dollar pizzeria.
"The advantage of CleanScapes is that they come twice a day," he says. Bags sit in the alley for a couple of hours "and then they're gone." The bags are color-coded, depending on whether they contain garbage, recyclables, or compost. "It's pretty easy," he says. Plus, he adds, "we're saving tons of money." CleanScapes charges customers by the bag, whereas with Dumpsters you pay a set fee, no matter how full or empty. Determined to compost as much as possible, even the new corn-based cups and straws he uses, Ferrara says, "Really, all we're throwing away is aluminum foil."
A number of companies call CleanScapes specifically because they're ready to start composting. (Businesses can choose which company to compost with, regardless of who has the city contract for hauling trash in their area, a policy that will remain true under the next contract as well.) In the Capitol Hill kitchens of the City Catering Company, an airy space hidden inside a grim, abandoned-looking building on Pine Street, owner and new CleanScapes convert Lendy Hensley says she had too many problems with her former garbage collector, Allied, to trust it with composting. Like Tutta Bella, City Catering found its garbage sometimes didn't get picked up. "Then you're living with your garbage for a while," says Hensley, who sports a brunet ponytail and speaks in emphatic bursts. She says CleanScapes, in contrast, has been nothing but dependable. "It has changed our garbage life," she gushes.
She notes that her employees are "pretty green" and were "all over" the decision to compost. She shows off the compost bins in her kitchens, one of which lies at the feet of an employee making cherry chicken salad, so that he can toss in the vegetable and herb remains as he works.
There's a sense of virtue some companies gain by signing on with CleanScapes, as if the Martin ethos will attach to them, too. Just as her establishment is a "steward of the sea," says Catherine Mirabile, general manager of McCormick & Schmick's Harborside, its use of CleanScapes demonstrates its "conservation practices on land."
But not everybody sings CleanScapes' praises. Geraldine's Counter in Columbia City switched back to Waste Management after giving CleanScapes' collection service a try. The bag system "was hard to do with the volume we did here," says the restaurant's chef, Ramiro Gallegos. "We needed bigger containers for garbage, also for the compost." He also didn't like putting the bags on the ground. "The birds were ripping them up," he says. And he would run out of the special color-coded bags that have to be ordered from CleanScapes, as well as the prepaid stickers that indicate a bag is ready to be picked up. If staff put out black garbage bags instead, CleanScapes wouldn't pick them up.
Pioneer Square businesswoman Bueche says she had some of the same problems when she ran a restaurant called the Diner. Waiflike, with short bleached-white hair and a mercurial tongue, Bueche reflects on the experience as she walks through the neighborhood's alleys one night at dusk. In an alley near First and Yesler, she watches a pigeon eat debris from a CleanScapes bag in which it has torn a big hole. "Always the garbage would be ripped to shreds, always," she says of the time she used CleanScapes bags. "Whereas if I had a Dumpster, I could have put it in the Dumpster, closed the lid, and [been] done with it."
The bags are an eyesore, too. "This," she says, pointing to a pile of CleanScapes bags lying in the alley, "is a bunch of garbage on the ground." She points to a Dumpster. "This isn't." And when a business takes its garbage out after CleanScapes has already done a pickup, the bags of garbage sit there for hours or overnight. Bueche circles around the neighborhood and returns to an alley that a CleanScapes collection truck had driven through just a half-hour earlier. The alley is strewn with CleanScapes bags and litter, presumably because some businesses took out their garbage too late.
And if you had to find a place for rats to hang out, Dumpsters aren't a bad choice. "So you take the Dumpsters away, where do the rats go?" she asks. Into buildings, she maintains. "It's not like they say, 'Hey, the Dumpsters are gone, let's move to Tacoma.'"
Teri Barclay, an investigator with Seattle–King County Public Health, says she couldn't say without a study whether Dumpster-free alleys have decreased or increased the rat problem. She says, however, that when Dumpsters are taken away, rats are deprived of their food source. "Anecdotally," she says, "I think it's cleaner and [the rat problem] is better."
Chris Martin concedes that birds and rats can be a problem, but says that usually the rat issue dissipates after the first week of removing a Dumpster. And if the bags rip, he says, "we come and clean up afterwards. I would say that 90 percent of the time, everything is pretty clean and the new system is better."
To prove it, he offers his own alley tour. "Here are some Dumpsters," he says in an alley off Second and Cherry. "Here's human waste." He points to a pile of excrement between two Dumpsters. "Here's graffiti covering a Dumpster. Here's more human waste. Here's an abandoned shopping cart. More human waste. That's three human wastes in one alley. Our alleys aren't 100 percent perfect, but I think they're better than that."
He walks across the street to what he acknowledges is a problem alley for him. Some of the adjoining businesses use CleanScapes and some do not. And even some of the CleanScapes customers run out of the special bags, and so leave out black bags that neither CleanScapes nor the city contractor servicing the area will pick up. Martin says that he can't take responsibility for mixed alleys like this where there's some doubt about whom the bags belong to, and he also can't afford to take bags that don't have the prepaid stickers.
"This is the thing that's important about the city contract," he says. Assuming he wins at least one of the city's four garbage territories, he says, "Our hope is that [Dumpster-free alleys] would be mandatory and the city would hold us accountable. Because now there's way too much finger pointing."
When CleanScapes started in Pioneer Square, Martin followed the hiring model of the square's community council program, which gave jobs to people who were down and out. "It just made sense," he says. "There are 1,000 shelter beds in Pioneer Square." He liked the idea of putting the homeless, as well as ex-cons and recovering addicts, to work cleaning their own neighborhood.
Yet he's no bleeding heart—far from it. He says he had to fire one guy right away, after a police officer came to him and said the employee had been found passed out in a public bathroom. "I told him he had to take a drug test," Martin recalls. "He refused and was terminated."
The guy is still roaming the streets, strung out on heroin, Martin says. "And he has for 15 years. And that's the thing that blows my mind about the city. I can point to people that I've seen on the streets doing dope, basically supported by the city of Seattle for decades." Welfare and city-supported shelters are "all well and good," he says. "But I believe that what I call the social-service-industrial complex needs to have some outcome-based accountability."
"I think we in social services see more shades of gray," comments M.J. Kaiser, program director of the Compass Center, a Pioneer Square organization that runs housing and other programs for the homeless, and which used to refer clients for employment at CleanScapes. "We found Chris to be more black-and-white: 'This is a good guy. This is a bad guy.'" In the treatment world, she says, "You need to have an understanding that relapse is a part of recovery."
"As a business operating in the public right of way, we can't take those chances," Martin retorts.
Though Martin has had positive experiences with disadvantaged employees—including one for whom he went to court to help negotiate a lighter sentence on drug charges—he says CleanScapes made a "conscious decision" some time ago to hire less of them. The percentage of positive role models to people who needed them "skewed the wrong way" for the health of the organization, he says.
When the company moved to Georgetown, too, CleanScapes began requiring that most workers have driver's licenses, so they could get to the various locales the company was now serving. It's a requirement many indigents can't meet. Effectively, the main openings for such folks now are on the "sort line" at the recycling facility, where workers stand alongside a conveyor belt pulling wood, metal, concrete, and plastics off as fast as they can and dropping them into separate bins. The job starts at $10.15 an hour.
CleanScapes' garbage collectors make quite a bit more—but not as much as the unionized haulers employed by Allied and Waste Management. If Martin won a city contract, he would be obligated by the city to hire existing drivers from those companies who had lost work as a consequence. Martin says he would expect those workers to immediately vote for a union at CleanScapes and he would recognize it.
CleanScapes is thus likely to become ever more like the conventional companies it's attempting to displace. Martin says he knew he needed some "gray hair" to make his bid credible, so he recently lured away five employees from giant Waste Management, including Jerry Hardebeck, a 35-year Waste Management veteran who oversaw that company's municipal contracts in the region before becoming CleanScapes' new chief operating officer. Martin has hired a PR agency as well.
But Martin claims there remains a crucial difference between himself and his competitors: He doesn't own a landfill. In contrast, Waste Management and Allied own 450 landfills between them nationwide. (Waste Management owns the Oregon landfill Seattle uses.)
That means, according to Martin, that the big corporate behemoths have an incentive to put as much trash into the ground as possible. He doesn't. "We've got to pay to dispose of garbage," he says. Whereas recyclables can be turned into a sellable commodity. "If we get paid $10 to $15 a ton on recyclables but we have to pay $120 a ton on garbage, we're going to actively get out and get people to recycle," says Martin.
Nels Johnson, Allied's municipal marketing manager for the region, scoffs when he hears that logic. "The argument [to the contrary] there is that we own the biggest recycling plant in the state. We're into recycling big time." Susan Robinson, Waste Management's regional director of public sector services, also notes her company's many recycling plants nationwide. "We're the biggest recycler in North America," she says.
Allied's industrial-sized facility sits in SoDo. The squat, blue, block-long building processes 17,000 tons of material a month, about 8,000 of which come from Seattle. It's a huge, noisy, messy place, with masses of crumpled, shredded, and battered materials everywhere. Conveyor belts carry the stuff through almost-ceiling-high sorting machines, then past workers in masks and hard hats, who furiously sort through the refuse a second time, pulling out whatever can be sold as raw material.
Yet about 10 percent of the plant's intake ends up landfilled, leaving through the rail yard at the back of the building to go either to the King County landfill in Maple Valley or Allied's own landfill in south-central Washington, according to Pete Keller and Don Zimmerman, managers at the facility.
Keller and Zimmerman insist that they work hard to keep the factory output destined for the landfill to a minimum because, even though Allied owns the landfill, it still costs their division money to send material there. But they say some landfilling is inevitable for two reasons: People put all sorts of stuff into their recycling bins that they shouldn't (a coconut, a toilet seat, and black ballet shoes lay among the items Allied workers found on a recent day); and legitimate recyclables like glass, which can break into shards, sometimes damage other materials.
Zimmerman, a tall, mustachioed man who started his career as a "helper" on a garbage truck at age 14, emphasizes the point as he walks through the plant. He stops by a heap of stuff visibly containing paper, tin cans, and other recyclables, but which somehow the sorters have failed to pull out. "Because I don't want to landfill this, I'm going to scoop it up again and run it through a trommel [a sorting machine]," he says.
Still, Allied works with the materials it is given. Martin, on the other hand, asserts he can take recycling to a new level by educating people to stop throwing away recyclables as garbage. He talks of partnering with the city to create memorable advertising that would do for recycling what Smokey Bear did for forest safety. And then there are those incriminating photos he'd take.
Yet another idea included in his bid for the city's business is to run a contest among neighborhoods to reduce their overall waste. Whatever is saved in collection costs would go toward funding community projects in the neighborhood that won.
But it's unclear how much the city wants its garbage collectors to act as anti-waste crusaders. In his downtown office, SPU's Croll notes that the "lion's share of the marketing" around recycling and waste reduction is done by his agency. SPU has even put the brakes on contractors who wanted to send out material about recycling. "We want to send out a consistent message," he says.
Even if CleanScapes is not on the list when the city announces contract winners next month, it may well have lasting influence on how garbage is collected here. The city is currently considering whether to implement mandatory Dumpster-free programs in broad swaths of Seattle, such as the downtown core and the University District, according to Croll. The agency has asked all bidders to submit proposals for such a policy change, which would require approval by the mayor and the City Council.
Whether the city will authorize pictures of garbage scofflaws is another question, but you never know with Martin. Even if it doesn't, he may just decide to do it on his own.