King County launches Re+, reinventing the region’s waste system to cut carbon emissions, transition to a sustainable economy 

Building a sustainable economy and creating opportunities for those who need it most is what motivated Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman to start the Refugee Artisan Initiative (RAI), with the goal of breathing new life into products that would otherwise be destined for the landfill, creating jobs for refugee women in the process. 
“I learned that 85% of textiles get thrown away,” said Tung-Edelman, describing the initial idea to start RAI. “Perhaps we could combine helping refugee and immigrant women and these textiles to create a circular economy.”  
With the support of grants and business development opportunities from King County’s Solid Waste Division, RAI is finding innovative second uses for difficult-to-recycle items such as textiles, old fire hoses, and coffee bags.  

The Solid Waste Division is supporting innovations at RAI and dozens of other small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and city governments as part of its Re+ plan – the County’s approach to reinventing our region’s solid waste system. 
Re+ contributes to the County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan goal of cutting countywide greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade while transitioning the region to a sustainable circular economy. In addition to supporting innovative projects, Re+ will include actions aimed at reimagining the way we manage waste at the city, county, and state level.  

An artisan at the Refugee Artisan Initiative creates new products from textiles that would have gone to the landfill.   

Why Re+? 

While King County has made a lot of progress to expand recycling and compost services – achieving one of the highest recycling rates in the country – we still use a 20th century model to deal with our waste. Under that model, most of what goes to our landfill still has value and could be recycled or reused.  

“We’re sending hundreds of thousands of tons of material to the landfill every year and a huge percentage of that material doesn’t belong there,” said Andy Smith, Recycling and Environmental Services Manager at the King County Solid Waste Division. “There’s a limited lifespan of the landfill, so we need to prepare for the future.”  

It is estimated that about 70% of the materials we throw away in King County could have been reused, recycled, or composted.  

A truckload of garbage from a King County transfer station being tipped into the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill. 

All of what comes to the landfill to be buried has had a significant impact on our climate before it gets there. Greenhouse gas emissions were created from the energy use at all stages of a product’s life – from resource extraction, to manufacturing, to shipping, to disposal. “Now, imagine all the energy and emissions that goes into that single plastic straw that you might use once and then discard,” said Smith. “And then it goes to the landfill, and all of that is wasted energy.” 

Fewer harmful greenhouse gas emissions are produced when we prevent waste in the first place by consuming less, reusing what we have, and recycling more. For example, when food and yard waste are thrown in the garbage rather than in the yard waste bin, they come to the landfill and produce methane – a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. 

Our current waste system has social costs, too. It was built without the input of frontline communities – those most affected by climate change due to existing historic racial, social, environmental, and economic inequities. These populations often experience the earliest and most acute impacts of climate change, and their experiences afford unique strengths and insights into climate resilience strategies and practices. 

“We recognize there are barriers to participation, historic barriers that need to be overcome, and there have been historic exclusions that we want to correct,” said Smith.  

Re+ will reduce the environmental and social impacts of our waste system, extend the life of the landfill by preventing waste, and reduce long-term disposal costs for residents and ratepayers. Re+ includes actions, with more to follow in the coming years, that focus on systemic changes to our waste system.  

Making change at the city, county, and state level 

King County is working with cities and other partners to champion innovative policy ideas, including: 

  • Supporting state legislation requiring companies to take greater responsibility for the design, reuse, and recycling of their own products and packaging. King County supports statewide Extended Producer Responsibility legislation requiring companies that make consumer products fund the residential recycling system and ensure that their packaging and paper products can be recycled. It would reduce costs for consumers and local governments, providing consistent recycling services across the state. 
  • Statewide policy expanding composting and other actions to reduce organic waste. An example is the Organics Management Law —House Bill 1799 — which passed the state legislature last year. The law supports food waste diversion for businesses and public sector composting programs, including efforts to get edible food to those who need it. In the coming years, King County and city governments will update their solid waste plans to match the new law and work together with businesses to ensure compliance.  
  • Expanding curbside food and yard waste collection for residents throughout the county. New strategies will focus on cities and unincorporated areas with lower subscription rates to expand residential composting services. Possible policy options include requiring households with curbside garbage service to also have food and yard waste service, changing garbage to every-other-week collection, or requiring the separation of food waste from garbage. 
  • Investing in new technologies that recover valuable materials from garbage and get them back into the economy. Technology, such as Mixed Waste Processing uses sorting and processing equipment to separate recyclables from residential garbage. 

Partnering with communities to create a more equitable solid waste system 

The Re+ Community Panel meets with King County staff to provide direction on creating a more equitable solid waste system.    

King County also recognizes the critical role of communities in creating a more equitable solid waste system. Re+ includes actions to work with frontline communities and support innovative projects, such as:   

  • Creating a community panel to help guide Re+ implementation, bringing together diverse communities and voices to chart a path toward a more equitable, waste-free King County. The panel will help address the needs of communities that have historically been excluded and under-served.  
  • Working with cities to implement innovative zero waste and recycling programs. This program is open to King County cities that have signed a commitment to contribute to Re+ and support the County’s zero waste of resources goals.  
  • Providing inclusive and equitable grants, technical support, and guidance to stimulate a waste-free economy. King County will deliver programs focusing on providing business development to help new ideas, and competitive grant programs open to private, nonprofit, and public entities to support waste prevention and waste diversion.  

By changing policy and working with communities, Re+ will build a waste system that’s more sustainable and equitable, helping organizations like RAI and dozens of other projects like it to develop innovative ideas to build a more sustainable, circular economy. 
“Having this funding allows us to really think outside the box,” said Tung-Edelman. Grants allow RAI to “not only prove the concept, but hopefully it becomes a sustainable project that we can actually expand and scale to hire more refugee and immigrant women.” 

As Smith of the Solid Waste Division said, “Re+ is really about building a system that works for everyone, and creating a healthy, vibrant, safe, and waste-free King County.” 

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