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Cities get creative to divert waste from landfills

Through key partnerships and piloting new techniques, local governments are finding ways to keep even more items from the trash heap.

Waste ManagementEnvironmental ServicesRecyclingSolid Waste Management

Markham, ON



Albury, NSW



Nelson, BC



Pottstown, PA

United States

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  • Communities are expanding their landfill diversion programs through methods such as reselling items, promoting at-home composting, and developing new forms of recycling

  • Markham, ON introduced bins around the city to collect textiles for resale via Salvation Army partnership

  • The waste treatment plant in Albury, NSW opened a local resale shop to recycle discarded items

  • Nelson, BC piloted an at-home food composting program to decrease organic waste

  • Pottstown, PA started the country’s first flexible plastic recycling pilot, allowing residents to dispose of plastic packaging like grocery bags and shrink wrap


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.
Many cities track their “diversion rate,” or the percentage of waste redirected from landfills or incinerators. This is calculated by dividing the weight of recycled waste by the total weight of recycled plus garbage. In 2009, the average diversion rate in the United States was recorded at 33.8 percent, though it varies widely from city to city.

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.
To counteract this, Markham, ON, a city outside of Toronto, introduced the ON SMART Textile Recycling Program in 2016 to give these items an opportunity to be reused once their owners are finished with them.
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.
The textile diversion program saves about $86,000 CAD per year. It also received a CAMA Environment Award for the over 100,000 population category. On top of all this, it allows the carbon footprint of each item to be stretched for longer use, and provides low-cost goods for the community.

Albury, NSW creates local resale shop to recycle discarded items

Diverting items to be resold and recycled is also underway in Albury, NSW. The city’s recycling centre partnered with local nonprofit Aware to open an upcycled and second hand shop at the waste management facility.
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

In British Columbia, food and other organics make up about 40 percent of the waste in municipal landfills. This produces 7.5 percent of the province’s greenhouse gasses.
To divert organic waste from the dump, the city of Nelson, BC, is joining a regional effort to introduce a curbside composting program in 2022. While the plan is a win for the environment, some city representatives expressed concern about the cost to operate the system. As a result, Nelson citizens have the right to opt out and use an “approved alternative organics diversion strategy.”
So what’s a good alternative strategy? The city set out to find one. In 2020, a three-month pilot allowed residents to use FoodCycler, a household compost machine, to turn food waste into a byproduct that can be used for compost or gardening.
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.
At the end of the pilot, residents were impressed. The users rated the process 4.4 on a scale of 5, and 83 percent of participants said they’d recommend the FoodCycler to a friend. On top of that, the 151 trial households processed 30,200 liters (about 15 tonnes) of food waste, or about 200 liters per household. Many of these households used the compost in their gardens, reducing the total number of garbage bags collected by the city.
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

Flexible plastic packaging — the stuff used in your grocery bags or shrink wrap — is one of the fastest growing types of packaging, with 12 billion pounds consumed in the U.S. each year. The problem is, in most places you can’t recycle it.
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.
J.P. Mascaro & Sons, which runs a facility in Exeter Township, Berks County, was tapped for the project. The company would intake flexible plastics at its facility, use automated optical sorting equipment to sort it (a $2.6 million grant from Materials Recovery for the Future helped install sophisticated sorting equipment), and then turn it into rFlex composites that can be resold.
In order to pilot this process, J.P. Mascaro & Sons selected nearby Pottstown, due to its proximity and the fact that its curbside bins have lids. The program eventually expanded to nine neighboring communities, reaching a total of 56,000 households.
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.

Key Takeaways

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.


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Lindsay Pica-Alfano

Co-founder at Govlaunch



In Progress

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