Here’s an easy way for Seattle to save millions of dollars: switch from once-a-week garbage collection to once-every-two-weeks garbage collection. The change would also yield a small environmental benefit. Here’s how.

Right now, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), the city-owned utility that manages waste disposal services, has three collection categories: garbage and organics (yard waste and food)—which are collected every week—and recycling, which is collected every two weeks. By switching garbage collection to a biweekly schedule SPU would save $5.6 million per year in reduced collection payments to contractors. Plus, those savings would actually increase over time as inflation nudges up the cost of collection contracts.

In addition, the utility would save about $700,000 per year in utility tax avoidance and around $100,000 per year in waste disposal savings. It’s in this last category where the environmental benefit comes in. Experts believe that in a biweekly garbage collection scenario, single family customers will divert more of their food waste from the garbage to the organics bin. SPU would still need to pay for processing the food waste into compost, but that’s cheaper than sending the food waste to a landfill. In other words, the utility can save $100,000 per year when customers turn more of their food waste into compost.

Collectively, the savings add up to $6.4 million.

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  • There are, however, some small one-time start up costs. SPU estimates that it would need to lay out $400,000 for outreach, customer service, and implementation, plus somewhere between $1 and $2 million for new waste containers that would presumably be distributed gratis to utility customers. In total, the one-time costs could be as high as $2.4 million, which would mean a net savings of only $4 million in the first year — though that figure would rise to $6.4 million (plus inflation) in future years.

    There’s one other wrinkle too. The utility taxes are levied by the city, which means the $700,000 in tax savings would essentially come out of the city’s general fund revenue. In aggregate then, the net benefit to the city is a bit smaller, around $5.7 million. But that’s still a heap of money.

    As it turns out, Seattle is planning a pilot project of biweekly garbage collection in select neighborhoods starting in 2012. If officials decide to go for it citywide, the switch would probably not be implemented until 2014.

    That’s good news, but it would be better to get this program started sooner. Plenty of SPU customers are cash-strapped right now. If the $6.4 million savings can protect residents from rate increases—or perhaps targeted rate reduction for low-income folks—it’s worth doing in a hurry.

    Thanks to Tim Croll at Seattle Public Utilities who provided detailed information with remarkable speed and clarity.