A number of cities around the world – at least 25, according to National Geographic – are pursuing Zero Waste as a city-wide initiative. Of the 94 major cities in the C40 Cities organization, 23 have signed a commitment that includes the following goals by the year 2030:
- Cut the amount of waste generated by each citizen by 15%
- Reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incineration by 50%
- Increase the landfill diversion rate to 70%
It sounds great. But how much can reasonably be achieved?
In this post I highlight a couple of cities that have already made major strides in this direction – and one that is struggling with the basics.
San Francisco, CA has been diverting about 80 percent of its waste from the landfill since 2012, thanks to mandatory composting and recycling, and banning common sources of trash such as plastic bags and Styrofoam. That’s 1.5 million tons of waste per year that would otherwise be rotting away in landfills, or floating in the ocean.
Despite its successes, the city is not going to achieve its previously stated goal of being waste-free by 2020, which led to this Wired.com headline:
Really? While good for click bait (I fell for it) it’s hardly a fair assessment of the progress San Francisco has made.
Compare that with:
Chicago recycles or composts less than 10 percent of its waste, and is increasingly diverting recoverable materials to landfills. Some of this can be attributed to a high curbside recycling contamination rate; the photo below is from a Midwest recycling conference in November 2018. (Keep in mind Material Recovery Facilities don’t like more than 5 percent contamination, and China wants less than 0.5 percent.)
Also contributing is an odd payment arrangement with one of the city’s waste contractors, who is paid both for picking up materials as recyclables, and again if the material is rejected as “too contaminated” and sent to landfill. The company denies they are rejecting recycling bins for economic reasons, but of all those rejected, over 90 percent were tagged by this contractor, although they service only half the city.
Why the huge difference between the two cities? Clearly, recycling has to make economic sense for it to survive long term. Education is also necessary, to make residents aware of the need for clean recycling streams, as well as incentives to keep contaminants out of the recycle bins.
Here’s another city that applies those principles to achieve 80 percent landfill diversion, and does it not with curbside pickup, but with residents dropping off materials:
Kamikatsu is a town of about 2,000 in a country that doesn’t have much landfill space. So their waste has been either recycled or incinerated. Since 2003, the percentage of waste recycled has increased to 80 percent – the same rate as San Francisco. And there’s no waste pickup in Kamikatsu. Everyone brings their trash to the waste collection center, and sorts it there into over 40 different categories.
According to the head of Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy, recycling is successful there for at least two reasons. First, it not only lowers carbon emissions, it costs less – up to six times less than incineration – despite the effort to sort and clean the materials.
And social pressure plays a large role too. Everyone in Kamikatsu is expected to follow the recycling process. The Zero Waste Academy also works with local businesses to help them reduce and eliminate waste, such as using paper straws and composting their food waste.
Contrast that with the U.S., where the “throwaway society” is still prevalent. Changing our outlook of recycling to a social responsibility is difficult when it’s easier and cheaper to toss everything into a trash can. Progress is being made, but with the U.S. averaging only about 34 percent diversion, there’s still a lot of work to do.
My hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan averages about 50 percent landfill diversion, according to the city’s website. I think we can do better, especially because many of our local events, such as football games and footraces, including the Ann Arbor Marathon, achieve over 90 percent diversion.
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