Clark County recycled more than half of its disposable waste for the first time in 2011, setting a new mark that largely followed the statewide trend.
The county registered a recycling rate of 50.2 percent, just under the 50.7 figure reported for all of Washington by the state Department of Ecology. Both numbers were a slight increase from 2010, and cracked the 50 percent barrier for the first time.
In other words, of all the municipal waste that was disposed of, just over half of it was recycled. Most of the rest ended up in landfills.
Clark County's recycling rate ticked up from 49.1 percent in 2010, according to sustainability coordinator Pete DuBois. But for a county that produces hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste each year, even one percentage point can mean a big difference, he said.
"To crank that rate up, it takes a lot of tons," said DuBois, who finalized the latest county numbers this week. "Although it seems rather small, it is a good trend."
The county's diversion rate also improved in 2011, to 63.6 percent. That includes nonrecycled material that was burned, for example, or otherwise reused and kept out of a landfill.
Statewide recycling rates have mostly climbed steadily since Ecology officials began tracking detailed numbers in 1986. That year, Washington's recycling rate registered at just 15.2 percent. It topped 40 percent for the first time in 2004.
Even as the statewide recycling rate has climbed in more recent years, the amount of total waste generated has dropped. Washington created about 8.9 million tons of municipal waste in 2011, down from a peak of 9.3 million tons in 2007. When the economy started sinking the following year, the amount of garbage Washingtonians produced sank with it.
Last year's recycling rate of 50 percent actually achieved the goal set by a 1989 state law, according to the ecology department. It's unclear how the state will recalibrate that target in future years, said Laurie Davies, program manager for the state's Waste 2 Resources effort. Instead of recycling waste, a bigger priority is not producing that waste in the first place, she said. Part of that comes in people's buying habits, Davies said.
"We're trying to get people to move up the hierarchy, and not purchase junk that they're going to throw away," Davies said.
Locally, the county is now involved in a number of education and outreach programs encouraging sustainable practices. But it's more direct changes that make the most difference, DuBois said. The county altered its recycling collection system a few years ago, and is considering an expansion of yard debris and food waste collection service, he said.
"That's certainly going to have more of an impact," DuBois said.