As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Cities and counties are starting to take this adage to heart.
We’ve covered trends in trash and waste management in general, highlighting the creative ways local governments are maximizing recycling programs, maintaining operations and engaging the public. But sometimes the things tossed in the trash or recycling bins aren’t waste at all. It may be clothes someone’s outgrown. Toys no longer in demand. Lawn tools. Food. At the same time, there are some widely used materials that can’t currently be recycled — but would make a big difference if they could be.
Rather than having these items pile up in the landfill or recycling center, cities and counties are finding innovative ways to weed out these reusable items, and find new uses for them. Here’s a look at what they’re doing.
What is landfill diversion?
Landfill diversion is the process of redirecting waste to other places or uses, in order to maintain or reduce the size of landfill buildup. This can be done via methods like recycling and waste reduction, though treatments, or through “upcycling,” which repurposes products into new products of higher quality.
Markham, ON partners with Salvation Army to sell used textiles
Textiles such as clothing, bedding, and shoes sometimes carry a large carbon footprint. When people buy inexpensive fabrics, a large amount of production effort and emissions goes into the production, while the quality doesn’t always last beyond a few uses. They then end up in the dump.
Markham already had high marks when it comes to diverting waste from the landfill. An overall waste diversion program was launched in 2012, and by the time the textile recycling program came to life, the city had a curbside waste diversion rate of around 81 percent.
City officials estimated that textiles made up about 7 percent of overall waste in the region, so they set a target to divert 1,000 tonnes of the materials from the landfill. This includes a ban on disposing textiles in curbside trash, and the installment of textile bins around the city where residents can dispose of their items. Some of the 77 bins contain smart sensors to monitor the volume and frequency of disposals, as well as solar lighting.
To maintain the bins and the collected items, Markham partnered with the Salvation Army. This organization sorts through the discarded items at no cost to the city, and sends lightly used items to be resold in its stores. Other items that can’t be resold are turned into insulation and filler materials for car seats and pillows.
Albury, NSW creates local resale shop to recycle discarded items
The shop includes a range of lightly used or upcycled products, ranging from furniture to bicycles to pool tables to appliances. Lawn care supplies, such as mulch and tools in good condition, are also transferred from the local landfill to be sold at the store.
The store is staffed by Aware, which places members of the community who are seeking jobs or have disabilities. The items in the store are sold at a discount, and profits go back to support the Aware organization.
By opening and operating the store onsite, Albury has essentially created a micro system within a larger waste management system, which not only covers intake, sorting, recycling, and reuse (diverting an estimated 220 tonnes from the landfill) but also contributes jobs to the local economy and supports a local non-profit that serves residents in need.
Nelson, BC pilots at-home food composting program
For the initial pilot, Nelson arranged for 151 households to purchase FoodCycler devices at a discounted price of $250 CAD. The city then provided an additional $125 CAD rebate. The households used the machines for three months and weighed in on how it went.
Nelson’s efforts show that even when a local government signs on to a larger regional plan, there are still ways to innovate locally. The pilot here allows people a choice in how they manage their organic waste, while still driving toward the city’s overall zero waste goals.
Pottstown, PA runs country’s first flexible plastic recycling pilot
A research group called Materials Recovery for the Future set out to change that. The collaborative, which is funded by industry leaders such as Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and the American Chemistry Council, started looking for a waste management partner to develop and test a better system of flexible plastic recycling. After a year, the pilot was declared a success, meeting four of its five goals (and tracking toward the fifth). More work and investment is needed to analyze and optimize the rFlex marketplace, but the Pottstown pilot lay the groundwork for more advancements in flexible plastic recycling, which could have major environmental impacts around the world.
While each project had its own criteria and outcomes, there are some common lessons to be learned when exploring waste diversion techniques:
Look for mutually beneficial partnerships
As with many projects, landfill diversion works best when more stakeholders are working to make it a success. Forming partnerships locally or nationally can lead to the funding and resources to push forward innovative programs that a city wouldn’t have been able to run on its own.
Start small and test your way
As with most innovation, there are bound to be setbacks and failures. Starting with a pilot and testing an approach for a defined period of time allows the local government to learn what works and what doesn’t. This leads to less lost costs in the long run, as well as smoother implementation.
Engage the public along the way
Changing behavior takes time and effort, especially if you’re looking to reverse ingrained habits or beliefs. The more a local government involves residents in trials and discussions about landfill diversions, the higher the participation rate will ultimately be. Generally, people want to do what’s best for the environment, so cities need to educate them to show them the way.