Whether a big city or a small town, managing municipal solid waste presents one of the most daunting challenges for any community. In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that 258 million tons of solid waste were generated, averaging 4.4 pounds per person per day. For my family of four, that means we generate almost 18 pounds of trash a day! Personally, that’s a little shocking. We just read in the Star News about how we—Valley County—produce more trash than we are allowed to dump in our regional landfill, and how we have to spend valuable taxpayer dollars to truck our excess trash to Mountain Home. And that doesn’t count all the trash that is burned, which raises air quality issues.
Of course, the best thing for me—for all of us—to do would be to not generate the waste in the first place. But if I consider just the necessities—for example, food—it is nearly impossible to leave the grocery store without a bunch of waste given how food is packaged in our society.
Maybe like me, you’re wondering: Am I really generating that much waste, and if so, how can I stop being part of the problem?
My Household Experiment
I decided to do a theoretical experiment of how much waste my family generates and how much we can keep out of the landfill by doing some grocery shopping. I bought enough food for a breakfast and a vegetarian chili and salad dinner for my family. I took out all the food and weighed my trash. Here is my trash list (excluding uneaten food or food scraps):
1 plastic milk jug
1 plastic orange juice bottle
2 plastic yogurt cups
1 plastic clam shell (strawberries)
1 plastic bag (from the cereal)
5 plastic produce bags (from the onions, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and lettuce)
(No carry out bags, paper or plastic, are included because I usually bring my own. I did include the plastic produce bags though I usually forego using them or bring bags I’m reusing, but I believe I’m in the very small minority with that practice.)
1 paper cereal box
1 egg carton
4 tin cans (from tomatoes and beans)
1 glass jar (from the salad dressing)
Our non-food trash alone from breakfast and dinner for a family of four weighed in at about one and a half pounds. That doesn’t sound too bad as far as my waste generation goes. But that does not count uneaten food or food scraps from breakfast or dinner, or lunch, or snacks for the kids, or the packaging associated with that food, or paper junk mail, or packaging from that Amazon.com order that arrived, or cat litter and dog waste, or paper towels used to clean up a spill and napkins from dinner, or . . . you get the picture. It adds up. Quickly. But it doesn’t all have to go to a landfill.
The EPA reports that an average of 35 percent of trash generated nationwide is diverted from landfills by being recycled or composted. Keeping a mere one-third of our trash out of landfills provides “an annual reduction of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars.” Not to mention the money it would save. In Valley County, our recycling rate is, well, we don’t know. When I asked how much material is picked up and how much is actually recycled from the Valley County Recycling Center, neither Valley County nor Lakeshore could tell me. But we all know Valley County’s recycling program is inconvenient. A mess. Mismanaged. I believe we can certainly do better than this.
Consider my list of waste in my limited experiment. All of my waste in this example can be put to reuse, be recycled, or be composted if the right program is in place. So theoretically I can divert 100 percent of my waste from going to a landfill. Wow!
“Yeah, sure, this analysis is true if you live somewhere like Portland or San Francisco,” you’re thinking. Yes, you’re right, but include Boise in that list. If we exclude composting, add Blaine County to the list. Yet neither Valley County nor McCall has any known plans for managing our trash except for building yet another landfill. Even those plans were scrapped when Idaho County refused to contribute its share. The option of improving our recycling program, which is much needed, has received a dim assessment and been debated for years. Brian Hoffman of Lakeshore was recently quoted in the Star-News as saying that “we are really in uncharted territory” and suggested that now that China is refusing our recyclable waste, it has nowhere to go. Has he checked out Boise’s program, which not only manages their plastic recycling regionally, but is expanding it? Outgoing McCall City Council member Marcia Witte said that “the amount of material that we would actually recycle would be fairly minimal.” Has she looked into Blaine County’s recycling program, which boasts a 40 percent recycling rate even though it is a rural community? McCall certainly can’t throw its hands up and say it can’t do what communities around the country have been doing for over 20 years.
A Suggested Path for the Future
So here is a plan for McCall to get on track with a sustainable waste management plan, which I hope the City Council will seriously consider.
1. Create a political and social culture that values sustainable materials management.
Successful waste diversion programs occur where there is both the correct political and social culture.
Strong political leadership is key in communities that have been able to achieve high waste diversion rates. Local governments are largely responsible for dealing with waste produced by residents and businesses. Generally speaking, the goal historically has been to remove waste away from communities efficiently and dispose of it safely, which means dumping it in a landfill. There is no doubt that achieving progress in waste reduction and waste diversion requires the active involvement and cooperation of the residents and business community. But through innovative policies, ordinances and regulations, rate structures, fees and taxes, incentives, public services, and, perhaps most importantly, education, local governments can have a tremendous impact on encouraging an otherwise disengaged and passive public to prevent or divert waste from our landfills.
Strong political leadership will create the right environmental ethic—the sense in the community that reducing waste is an important social behavior—whether at work, in our schools, with our businesses, in our public spaces, or at home.
2. Establish a Municipal Solid Waste Advisory Committee to determine what type of recycling program is best for our community.
Waste diversion is complex and deciding how to effectively deal with our waste, whether it be through a recycling, composting, or other program, is a big task. McCall needs to establish a municipal solid waste advisory committee that can research potential options, work with the public to identify the community’s desires, and develop a solid plan that can be implemented.
Take recycling. We can look at recycling programs in a lot of cities, such as San Francisco or Portland, that have achieved phenomenal recycling participation and waste diversion rates. But rural communities have additional challenges that big cities don’t: sparsely populated residents; fluctuating seasonal resident and tourist populations; long hauling distances to materials markets; a limited tax base; and traditionally low levels of government services.
The good news is that a lot of rural communities, not just around the country but in Idaho, are making recycling work.
Blaine County, for example, is part of the Southern Idaho Solid Waste District (SISWD), a special-purpose unit of local government that manages waste for seven rural counties in Southern Idaho. The SISWD, from its inception, shifted its waste management focus from landfill development to waste diversion, recycling, and public education. Formation of SISWD allowed these counties to pool resources and realize greater efficiencies while lowering capital and operational expenses in managing their waste. Each county runs its own recycling program. Blaine County’s program is one of the few that uses both a three-bin (mixed paper, #1-5 plastics, and aluminum and tin) curbside service and drop-off locations (glass, cardboard, and plastic bags) to manage recyclable material. Because the price paid for mixed recyclables is low, the decision to collect recycling in three bins, as opposed to single-stream recycling, has made Baine County’s program financially sustainable. The three-bin system has also been credited with producing a lot less contamination of recyclable material with trash; in 2014, only two percent of material was pulled out as trash from recycling collections, compared to 10 percent in Boise. By many measures, Blaine County’s program has been a resounding success for rural communities. In 2014, Blaine County boasted a recycling rate of about 40 percent, well above the national recycling average of 25 percent and triple the average of the seven counties in the SISWD. The program reported 1,632 tons of material were recycled, resulting in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and a savings of taxpayer money that would have otherwise been spent on trucking trash to the landfill.
Sandpoint has established a single-stream curbside recycling program that collects paper, cardboard, #1-7 plastics, glass, tin, and aluminum on a bi-weekly basis. Sandpoint has credited the single-stream system as generating higher rates of recycling, seeing a 63 percent increase in recycling rates after the first year the single-stream system was launched. While Sandpoint was able to establish a successful single-stream system in part because of its proximity to Waste Management’s $18 million regional recycling facility in Spokane, Wash., single-stream collection has, however, resulted in contaminated material with residents stuffing in just about as much trash as recyclable material.
Finally, Adams County has established a recycling program with two collection centers, one each in New Meadows and Council, that collects paper, #1-2 plastics, aluminum, tin, and glass (though glass is not currently recycled) in separate bins. The bins at New Meadows are taken to Council, where the material is baled and picked up by Western Recycling and hauled to its Oregon facility. To minimize transportation costs, the program negotiated reduced rates with a local trucking company that makes periodic deliveries to McCall. As with any recycling program, contamination—particularly with plastics that are currently not accepted—is a problem, and having the facility staffed has been critical in helping to keep contamination to a minimum. When commodity prices were higher, the program paid for itself. Currently, the program requires some county money to stay afloat, but it has still been successful in reducing the amount of material going to the landfill.
The first point I’ll make after reviewing these three recycling programs is that we can make recycling work in McCall, even though we are not a big city and not in California. Second, we need to take the time to determine what system will work best for us. These three examples show that different systems have worked to varying degrees of success depending on what is available, whether it is capitalizing on a strong recycling ethic, proximity to markets for recyclable materials, or collaboration with other entities to reduce costs.
Determining what type of recycling program will work in McCall requires identifying the amount of potential recyclable material, assessing the availability and level of demand in regional markets for each type of material, assessing the collection and processing options, and determining whether market cooperatives can help achieve higher market value, better transportation rates, and increase the types of materials accepted by the manufacturer. Public involvement throughout the process of developing a program, and also participating in the program, is imperative to its success.
And that is just the foundation; continued evaluation of progress toward recycling goals, education of the public to recycle often and recycle right, and development of innovative solutions when commodity markets fluctuate (or disappear, as has the market for U.S. recyclables going to China) is key to maintaining a sustainable program.
3. Public education is key to any successful program.
The importance of public education cannot be understated and is recognized as a key component in some of the nation’s most successful recycling programs. All recycling starts with an individual’s decision to do what they should with an item they want to get rid of, and that decision can have significant impacts on a community’s recycling effort. That choice either leads to environmental and financial success, or low recycling rates with contaminated material and excessive operating costs. Education is key to making sure people know what to recycle, when to recycle, where to recycle, and most importantly, how to recycle. And education is a continual process as recycling programs change over time, people forget because of busy lives, and new people join our community. Recycling education belongs in our schools, businesses, and throughout the greater community.
Don’t Stop with Recycling.
Notice that earlier I called for a “municipal solid waste” advisory committee, rather than a recycling advisory committee. That is because a comprehensive program to maximize diversion of solid waste from landfills only starts with recycling, and also incorporates reuse, composting, source reduction, and potentially energy production. All these methods are viable ways to divert trash from our landfill.
I’ll leave that topic for another day.
American Recycling is Stalling (Idaho Statesman, 2015)