Seattle is considering picking up garbage only every other week as a way to save money and boost recycling, and would start with 800 households this summer.

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Seattle is considering picking up garbage only every other week as a way to save money and boost recycling.

The city hopes to start a six-month pilot project in July involving 800 households in four demographically diverse neighborhoods. If the test proves successful, the every-other-week garbage collection could be extended citywide, although that wouldn’t happen until 2015 because of labor contracts.

“We’ve dramatically reduced the amount of stuff we send to the landfill. We think there’s an opportunity to do more,” said City Councilmember Richard Conlin. He also cited reduced truck traffic and carbon emissions as potential benefits of the change.

The City Council would have to approve temporary rates for households in the pilot neighborhoods. The committee that oversees utilities will take up the issue Tuesday, but full council approval isn’t expected until May.

Seattle Public Utilities officials say the test neighborhoods will be selected by mid-May. Residents in those areas must participate, but they will get a $100 stipend to offset any costs associated with the every-other-week collection, such as a larger can because of the less-frequent pickup.

The trial period will involve testing two different rate structures. The utility’s goal is not to make money on the potential change but to cover its costs.

The city first floated the idea for every-other-week garbage collection in August 2010, with the pilot planned to start up last year. But the project stalled as city officials weighed the potential savings — $6 million a year — versus the operational challenges of making the change.

Utility officials say the experiences of other jurisdictions that have already gone to every-other-week collection, including Portland, Renton and Olympia, have been positive. But those cities have different rate structures and populations.

“There’s no way to predict our own customers’ subscription behavior,” said Tim Croll, solid-waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. He said SPU would follow up to evaluate customer concerns, costs and changes to recycling patterns.

“It’s not clear-cut. There’s savings, but is there enough savings to make it worthwhile?” Croll asked.

Several surveys done by the utility since 2006 show that about half of Seattle residents are open to the prospect of pickup every two weeks, while half are unenthused, Croll said.

Among residents’ concerns were smelly garbage standing for an extra week, a higher cost associated with a larger can, and the risk that if they forget to put out the garbage, it would be a month between pickups.

Croll notes that Seattleites have successfully diverted tons of food and yard waste from their garbage already. “Organics,” as the compostables also are called, would still be collected every week.

But city officials acknowledge there are still some smelly things that can’t be recycled or composted — disposable diapers and pet waste, to name two.

The pilot would run over the hottest months of summer and the most trash-intensive months of the Christmas holiday, Croll said.

Seattle has decreased what it sends to landfills from single-family households from 150,000 tons in 1987 to 64,000 tons in 2010, according to city figures.

Put another way, the amount residents recycle has grown from less than 30 percent to 53 percent of the waste stream. The city’s ZeroWaste plan has a 60 percent recycling target for 2015 and 70 percent by 2022.

“To reach that goal, we need to divert a lot more organics and paper,” Croll said.

The council appropriated $206,000 in the 2012 budget to fund the pilot project. The city’s contracts with its two waste haulers, Waste Management and CleanScapes, include the pilot study and the possibility of switching to collection every two weeks with two years’ notice.

Portland started with a pilot study in 2010 and went to citywide garbage pickup every other week in November 2011. So far, officials estimate, the volume of garbage has dropped by 30 percent as people divert more food and yard waste.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Lisa Libby, the Portland mayor’s planning and sustainability director. But an important difference between Portland and Seattle, she noted, was that Portland didn’t have food-scrap collection until it also started the change in garbage pickup.

Seattle officials say the gains would likely be more modest here because residents already are diverting food waste.

Renton is in the third year of its every-other-week garbage collection and has grown from a 40 percent residential recycling rate to 70 percent, said Preeti Shridhar, city spokeswoman.

“We’ve had exceptional success with the program,” she said.

Much of England also has gone to “rubbish” collection every two weeks to meet European Union recycling and landfill-diversion targets, according to a 2010 article in the Guardian. The article says that about half of England’s 170 town councils have made the switch to “fortnightly,” but there has been some backlash from government ministers complaining about “fly-tipping (illegal dumping), odour and vermin.”

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.