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A Washington County's Love Affair With Mulch

KING County, Wash., is green. Not just because of heavy precipitation, but because its 1.5 million residents apparently like being environmentally responsible. Two years ago, the county's Solid Waste Division started a backyard composting program as part of an ambitious waste-reduction campaign. It created do-it-yourself composting bins, made of scrap-cedar decking, that look like those bird cages students make out of Popsicle sticks. Participants assemble 40 cedar slats on four metal connector rods and toss in leaves, grass clippings, and other yard waste. The finished compost gives residents healthier gardens while the city saves money on collection, process ing, and disposal costs.

At first, administrators considered giving the bins away , but decided to sell them to county residents for $8.75 apiece. (The true cost of the bins, says program coordinator Cheryl Waters, is $26.)

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"We wanted to charge a little to make sure people were really interested and would use them," says Ms. Waters.

In two years, they've sold 31,000 bins. Waters says it's hard to determine how much waste is diverted. A survey of 200 participants found that people are composting about 75 percent of their yard waste, which runs about 2,000 pounds a year per family. The program doesn't encourage composting food wastes with these open bins because they could attract animals, but Waters says they're starting a pilot program for food waste.

King County set itself the tough goal of a 65 percent reduction in waste by the year 2000. A variety of other waste-reduction programs are also in place, including curbside recycling. Now the plan becomes more difficult, says Waters. They aim to get residents to shop selectively - buy used goods, buy in bulk - in order to reduce waste even before it is generated.

"Four years ago, no one knew anything" about waste reduction, says Waters. "But the public wants more every year. The level of knowledge keeps increasing."

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