Sustainable Waste Management
5 Ways for Cities to Implement Sustainable Waste Management |
Article by Jane Marsh |
Global and national policies for more sustainable waste management are years away, so cities must take on the responsibility of enacting change. Countless places worldwide are using advances in technology to help combat the waste crisis.
Cities are setting their own guidelines for change and focusing on working toward a zero-waste system. Managing garbage and keeping it from landfills is the primary concern. San Francisco, a zero-waste leader in the United States, has worked hard to keep 80% of its trash out of landfills.
As cities worldwide test new waste management ideas, they learn what does and does not work. Sharing these advances can help move global initiatives further forward. Here are just a handful of ways various places are answering the waste crisis.
Generate Energy From Waste
One way of diverting trash from landfills is to burn it. Power plants that would typically rely on fossil fuels can instead use garbage to generate electricity and heat. Though a seemingly simple solution, critics argue that the disposal method is not worth the cost — high quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.
A plant in Denmark may have found a solution. Copenhagen is home to a waste-to-energy power plant called Copenhill that features a large green slope used for skiing in winter and hiking in warmer months. Copenhill burns 450,000 tons of trash into energy each year, providing over 30,000 homes with electricity and 72,000 with heat.
Copenhill is different from other waste-to-energy power plants because it’s working on ways to capture carbon gas emissions and store or recycle them. Copenhill heats about 99% of the buildings in Copenhagen. It is also working to reduce its use of fossil fuels, which are scarce resources. The success in Denmark prompts other cities to consider implementing this system as well.
Enact Pay-as-You-Throw Programs
Pay-as-you-throw programs are growing in popularity. Communities without these initiatives in place fund waste removal with property tax money. There is no incentive for households to reduce the amount of garbage they produce. Pay-as-you-throw programs charge residents by the bag. People must either purchase special colored trash bags or tags to attach for $1-$2. Setting fees for waste removal is no different than charging for other utilities. It helps make consumers aware of their consumption and can make a significant impact.
New Hampshire is already seeing benefits from its pay-as-you-throw program. It compared data from 34 towns with this program in place to those that did not and found it decreased waste by 42%-54%. This simple plan makes individuals more accountable for their trash and helps reduce the burden on landfills.
Find Ways to Recycle Hazardous Waste
Hazardous waste is difficult to dispose of and adds harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. Part of the problem is that many consumers do not know what constitutes a dangerous material and can be throwing potentially harmful items into their regular trash. These products can leach toxic metals and chemicals into the atmosphere and soil, affecting air, food, and water quality. In order to protect the environment, hazardous waste must be managed sustainably.
Cities need to educate residents about the dangers of throwing these everyday items in their garbage. Common hazardous items include printer cartridges, lightbulbs, car fluids, batteries, and nail polish. The best way to recycle these products is to take them to a location designed to treat them properly. For instance, some hardware stores take batteries for recycling. Putting better and more consistent systems in place for households to recycle their hazardous items could make a huge difference.
Additionally, the same sort of care in managing waste from households applies to healthcare. Medical waste needs to be managed sustainably, including the use of color-coded bins and recyclable products, when possible. Managing waste from healthcare also can protect the environment from toxins generated by hazardous medical waste.
Install AI-Powered Dumpsters
One problem with typical waste management is that dump trucks collect dumpsters on a set schedule, often a few times a week, regardless of whether they are full and ready to be emptied or not. The different types of items thrown into these dumpsters also pose an issue. Hazardous materials, food waste, and recycling often end up in these receptacles when there are better, safer ways to dispose of them.
Miami has been testing a new system for waste management at the level of the dumpster. It has installed AI-powered dumpsters throughout the city that monitor when they are full and what types of garbage are inside. This new method means trucks only collect trash when the receptacle is full, saving carbon emissions from driving when unnecessary. Miami has also used this technology to educate residents of buildings that continually put trash in the dumpster that should be recycled, composted, or disposed of properly.
Improve Waste Sorting Systems
Finding improved methods for sorting garbage from materials that can be reused and recycled would go a long way toward reducing the burden on landfills. Removing recyclables, disposing of hazardous waste properly, and saving food for composting are all helpful. Still, cities struggle with implementing a system that covers all the different types of trash.
Songdo, South Korea, has made great strides in becoming zero waste. It accomplishes this through a system of pipes that lead from homes to the necessary trash processing areas. Different lines are for various types of garbage.
Closer to home, San Franciso has improved its trash collection system by having three garbage bins curbside instead of one. There is a container each for refuse, recyclables, and compost.
We Must Do Our Part
Cities can only do so much on their own. Many of these programs come to a standstill without public buy-in. It takes individuals who are willing to implement new systems for separating their trash to make a change. Try composting on your own or use a service provided by your city. Check to make sure you aren’t throwing out hazardous materials and do your due diligence to dispose of them properly. Small steps like this enable citywide improvements that can then expand to national and global levels. It all starts with you.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of