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. Copenhillburns 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
Chicago might not be widely known as a green city, however, the city has a Sustainable Action Agenda, a vast network of sustainable mass public transit options, a high share of energy efficient buildings, and is home to a host of other green city initiatives.
Public mass transit options in Chicago include a large network of CTA buses, Metra commuter rail lines, and CTA’s ‘L’ railcar lines (above-ground rapid transit railcars running on elevated subway routes, which combined make over 2,000 trips/ day). CTA has a goal to use 100% clean energy by 2040, and has been able to cut its GHGs by over 10% annually by incorporating more energy efficient transit options while expanding its city fleet.
Chicago not only features exemplary mass public transit networks but excels at maintaining green spaces in the city as well. The greater Chicago area consists of over 12,000 total acres of parkland (this includes land managed by the state and county – there are over 8,800 acres of green space owned by the Chicago Park District, including over 600 parks). ~8.5% of the land area of Chicago is green space open to the public.
One great example of a large community park in Chicago is Lincoln Park, the city’s largest park (at about 1200 acres). Lincoln Park is the (adjacent) home to a city district (home to over 68,000 people) in Chicago’s Northside, as well as the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Chicago has benefited from green urban planning. The City of Chicago has worked hard to put in motion plans to transform the city into one of the world’s brightest examples of a sustainable metropolis.
A path to this goal is found in the 7 themes of “The Sustainable Chicago Action Agenda”. These 7 main themes include – Chicago’s Climate Action Plan, Energy Efficiency & Clean Energy, Waste & Recycling, Waste & Wastewater, Transportation Options, Economic Development & Job Creation, and Parks & Open Space.
Chicago has developed a citywide Climate Action Plan that mirrors the goals of Chicago’s Sustainable Action Agenda. The ChicagoClimate Action Planincludes climate change mitigation strategies featuring energy efficient buildings, clean & renewable energy sources, improved transportation options, and reduced waste & industrial buildings.
Sustainability Action Agenda of the City of Chicago – focus on LEED buildings
One of the aspects of the Sustainability Action Agenda the City of Chicago has been most successful at implementing, and a major part of that which makes Chicago a sustainable city, from an energy use standpoint, is developing sustainable energy efficient buildings. Another is the city’s implementation of sustainable technology with regard to retrofitting buildings.
LEED certifies buildings that demonstrate excellence in the following categories: sustainable sites, location and transportation, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Energy Star is another high energy efficiency standard for buildings and appliances within buildings, particularly high-efficiency electric appliances (such as electric HVAC units). Chicago excels at producing highly efficient buildings, and the electrification of buildings in order to enhance energy efficiency.
With regard to LEED and Energy Star buildings, Chicago has the highest percentage (at over 65%) of LEED-certified/ Energy Star certified office buildings among the top 30 real estate markets in the United States. The Willis tower (pictured here) went from LEED Gold to Platinum certification in just one year by efficiency retrofitting. The Willis Tower, the tallest U.S. LEED Platinum building, has made significant energy, sustainability, and air quality/ healthy building environment improvements.
In order to make even more advancements in residential and business buildings’ energy and water efficiency, and reduce GHGs associated with buildings in the city, the City of Chicago has launched Retrofit Chicago.
“Energy efficiency is a priority for strengthening Chicago— helping Chicago to be at affordable, modern, competitive, attractive, livable, and sustainable city. Retrofit Chicago’s energy efficiency pursuits help:
Save Chicagoans money
Improve air quality for workers in commercial buildings
The city of Chicago has initiated a Sustainable Development Division (SDD) to address sustainability concerns in the development of buildings in Chicago.
“The Sustainability Division provides technical assistance for [developers]…required to meet the City of Chicago’s sustainability standards, specifically city-assisted projects [and] new planned developments…[Chicago’s] Sustainable Development Division promotes development practices that result in buildings that are healthier to occupy, less expensive to operate and more responsible to the environment than traditional buildings.
Sustainable requirements involve various levels of LEED [and] Energy Star standards for energy efficiency…The policies are intended to improve…public roadways and parks– [and create] a higher level of stewardship of local water, air, and land resources. The division promotes strategies that absorb stormwater on site, such as…bioswales, permeable pavement and rain gardens, as well as green roofs. Green roofs help to keep rainwater out of overburdened sewer systems, reduce urban temperatures, improve the air quality in densely developed neighborhoods, and reduce a building’s energy costs.” – Chicago SDD
Additionally, Chicago has created theSolar Express renewable energy initiative largely to advance green building in the city. The Chicago Solar Express is a public-private initiative to bring low-cost solar panels to the rooftops of Chicago- by cutting fees, streamlining permitting and zoning processes.
Since 2012, the City of Chicago and ComEd have worked with private partners and the University of Illinois, under a grant from the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, to lower-cost barriers and reduce market prices of purchasing and installing solar PV for the city.
“By committing the energy used to power our public buildings to wind and solar energy, we are sending a clear signal that we remain committed to building a 21st-century economy here in Chicago,” [former]Mayor Emanuel said. The city of Chicago will achieve that commitment in a number of ways, including on-site generation and the acquisition of renewable energy credits (mostly wind and solar energy). Jack Darin, president of the Illinois Sierra Club supports the effort, “…by moving boldly to re-power its public buildings with renewable energy like wind and solar, Chicago is leading by example at a time when local leadership is more important than ever.” FROM: goodnewsnetwork.org/chicago-city-buildings-powered-100-renewable-energy
These efforts of Chicago in green building illustrate the success of Chicago Sustainability themes – substantially developing energy efficient buildings, and the retrofitting of buildings in Chicago to be LEED and Energy Star certified. Chicago Solar Express, as well as the widespread development of electricity & renewable energy to power buildings throughout Chicago, illustrates more Sustainability themes – clean energy & energy efficiency. Waste Management is yet another Sustainability theme in which the city of Chicago excels.
Chicago’s Waste Management
The City of Chicago has developed ambitious recycling programs throughout the city. By reducing Chicago’s waste and implementing various recycling programs, the city of Chicago is making an effort to conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste management, lower Chicago’s carbon footprint, and reduce space in areas surrounding Chicago currently needed as landfills. These are some of the programs offered by the city of Chicago to increase conservation in the city, especially focusing on Chicago’s recycling programs:
Blue Cart Recycling – “The City’s Blue Cart program provides bi-weekly recycling services to single-family homes and multi-unit buildings. By recycling regularly, [residents of Chicago] can help reduce the need for landfills, lower disposal costs, reduce pollution and conserve natural resources, such as timber and water”. Blue Cart Recycling includes almost every type of household waste, and had diverted over a half-ton of waste from landfills in the first 10 months of 2018 alone.
construction and demolition debris recycling - an ordinance requires that contractors recycle at least 50% of the recyclable debris generated by construction/ demolition
Another key sustainability initiative that is helping Chicago save money and resources is the city’s wastewater management program. New wastewater treatments are assisting in the recovery of essential energy, solids, and water. These resources are then recycled and transformed into assets that can generate revenue for the city, and protect the environment.
Green Infrastructure in Chicago; Chicago’s Greencorp
The city has also installed 50,000 water meters through the MeterSave program, to help residents of Chicago conserve water and reduce water bills. The city has made a $50 million investment to clean and upgrade 4,400 miles of sewer lines, while also upgrading the built infrastructure, creating a cleaner, greener infrastructure. The City of Chicago is also investing in replacing and enhancing rooftops and roadways in the city to allow for stormwater to circulate back into the environment.
Chicago plans to continue to replace or build new clean green and clean infrastructure. The city is replacing sewer mains in order to control stormwater accumulation in the sewers. Sitting next to Lake Michigan and atop a swampy marshy land, water management is crucial for Chicago to become a more sustainable and resilient city.
With a history of water pollution and toxic city water, Chicago became one of the lead innovators of waste and water management by securing federal funding in 1970 to upgrade its treatment facilities as a result of the Clean Water Act. Chicago continues to lead by example while reducing its water usage and increasing its efficiency.
Chicago is also keenly focused on developing sustainability training and jobs among the inner-city population- namely through its flagship program, Greencorps Chicago. Greencorps Chicago provides training and jobs in environmental conservation, as well as nature-area management careers, to Chicago residents with barriers to employment.The Greencorps Chicago Youth Program, which launched in 2013, provides paid, sustainability-focused summer jobs.
In addition to robust citywide conservation and waste management programs, the city of Chicago also has well-developed sustainable mass transit systems. Chicago’s mass transit options include transportation offerings from the United States’ 2nd largest public mass transit system; the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), which operates bus and rail lines in the city, including 144 rail stations and over 100 bus routes.
The city of Chicago is on the way to becoming a leader in sustainable transit. Chicago Transit Authority is committed to providing integral transit options that are greener and more sustainable. CTA is a huge contributor to the city’s sustainability movement because it helps to reduce vehicle emissions by replacing automobile trips with mass transit, reduces traffic congestion, and enables compact development.
The city of Chicago has 1,500 railcars with electric high-efficiency rails, and the new “L” cars are a new family of railcars equipped with innovative braking systems that can transfer electricity back to the third rail, which supplements power to nearby CTA trains (among other advances in the design and function of the railcars). The City of Chicago has launched a significant sustainable mass transportation campaign in order to reduce GHGs, decrease transit costs for the city and its residents, and increase efficiencies associated with transit. Chicago has 1,900 energy efficient buses that were converted to ultra-low sulfur diesel engines in March 2003; since 2007 any new buses acquired have been equipped with clean diesel and hybrid-electric engines. The city of Chicago plans to purchase additional all-electric buses.
Chicago has also made an effort to promote its multimodal transportation. That includes its Bike & Ride program. This program was established to improve bicycle access to bus routes and rail stations. In order to do that, the City of Chicago helped develop 6,000 Divvy bikes (Divvy bikes are part of a bike-sharing system run by the City of Chicago Department of Transportation), available for rent at 580 stations across the city. CTA has also worked with car-sharing companies to make for easier access between public transit and car-sharing. The CTA’s multimodal integration addresses transit-friendly development by working with the City of Chicago and other municipalities to connect their services and destinations.
Effective waste management strategies for cities include citywide recycling programs, circular economy strategies, as well as waste-to-energy programs (discussed below). A simple, straightforward action that benefits the environment positively is recycling, as well as actions such as responsibly treating food waste (as seen in The Food Waste Recycling Action Plan in the UK, described at the bottom of this article). Globally, the scientific community and most governments agree that citizens worldwide must make vigilant, concerted efforts NOW on actionable climate priorities as simple as recycling.
One major step forward many communities of the world have taken is educating the public about, and enforcing, recycling standards. Increased world population, mass production, and mass consumption have led to increased waste. Recycling reduces the global waste problem. Recycling reduces GHGs released into the atmosphere from landfills (due to less waste being sent to landfills), and reduces pollution generated in manufacturing packaging of products.
Which nations recycle the most globally?
The top five nations globally for recycling are Germany, South Korea, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland (as well as the country of Wales, in the United Kingdom. UK recycling and waste management efforts are discussed at the bottom of this article). All of these countries listed above have recycling rates of over 50%, while Germany now has a rate of over 65%.
Recycling in Europe is generally considered mandatory, or at least common practice (read below for specific examples of mandatory national recycling measures). Although recycling is ubiquitous throughout Europe, most European nations have yet to reach the 50% threshold. The below list is of nations nearing, or exceeding, the 55% rate for recycling nationwide.
The Green Dot
In order to get a Green Dot recycling symbol on a package, German manufacturers are required to pay a fee based on the size of the packaging, and the level to which the packaging is recycling-compliant. The fee is then used for the Green Dot recycling process itself. German manufacturers (now also many European manufacturers, as the Green Dot system has spread throughout Europe) have thereby been effectively incentivized to reduce the volume of packaging and to make packaging more easily recyclable.
The Green Dot program encourages companies to produce more minimalistic, innovative packaging; as well as more packaging from recycled materials (that can easily be recycled yet again). Germany also has an effective system of sorting domestic and commercial waste, going hand-in-hand with colored recycling bins for separate types of recyclable waste; to make sure materials are able to be recycled properly throughout the country.
5) SWITZERLAND – The Swiss national character places a high value on order and cleanliness – you can pay a fine simply for tossing recyclable garbage in regular trash bins, or even for taking the recycling out on the wrong day – so it’s no surprise they are among the best recyclers in the world.
4) AUSTRIA – Austria has taken a comprehensive approach to encourage its citizens to recycle. The combination of economic incentives for people and businesses to recycle, the successful implementation of education and training programs, and memorable advertising campaigns have thoroughly convinced Austrian citizens of the value of recycling. These national programs have helped turn Austria into the fourth biggest recycler in the world.
3) BELGIUM – Belgium’s recycling program is considered to be the best in Europe besides Germany (and possibly Austria). Belgium is known for the Flemish commitment to zero waste. The densely-populated Brussels-Capitol Region of Belgium (the nation’s capital, and also the de facto capital city of the European Union), with plenty of Flemish influence, recycles well over half its garbage.
The Flemish part of Belgium (the equally densely-populated region of the country north of Brussels) has the highest waste diversion rate in Europe, with over 70% of the region’s waste being recycled or composted…what’s more; the Flemish economy has grown significantly since 2000, yet the level of waste generation has remained consistently low; usually, economic growth goes hand in hand with a rise in the production of manufactured goods.
With this kind of nationwide manufacturing efficiency and dedication to waste management, Belgium is on its way to a successful circular economy. Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria are three relatively small central European nations, with small economies (especially compared to the #1 recycling country globally – Germany), who continuously outperform many much larger nations when it comes to recycling.
2) SOUTH KOREA – South Korea spends 2% of its GDP on a Green Growth Plan, hoping to deliver environmentally friendly economic prosperity. Its recycling industry is booming, and major companies in South Korea are behind the recycling boom; as a transition to a circular economy in South Korea is underway. Residential and business city blocks have a fastidious recycling system similar to the Swiss model, where recycling is free, but merely throwing items in the trash costs you a small amount of money. Wherever you are in the world, it seems economic incentives are an effective way of convincing people to care about recycling.
The worst countries worldwide for recycling are Turkey and Chile. Turkey recycles a mere 1% of its total waste. The government of Turkey places little to no importance on the recycling issue. Chile is known for having a bad infrastructure for waste management, and so a lot of illegal dumping occurs.
How Can Recycling Rates Be Improved Globally?
In order to improve recycling rates, it is important policymakers and local decision-makers prioritize citywide systems of ubiquitously available standardized colored recycling bins. This means both installing public recycling receptacles throughout cities, and providing recycling services free of charge to residential areas.
Most people will choose to recycle when it presents no apparent added effort, in order to participate in helping the environment, and help lower municipal waste management costs. The most effective recycling systems use colored bins which designate separate types of recyclable waste.
The more that these types of recycling bins are implemented and used throughout a country, the more successful a country’s recycling effort will become. This includes deploying colored recycling bins at residences, buildings, as well as public spaces, and green spaces.
Creating a penalty for not recycling is also a tool that can be implemented for increased community recycling. For example, it actually costs individuals and businesses in Switzerland to not recycle or have trash tossed in a waste stream not designated for recycling or incineration/ waste-to-energy, and to throw out your trash in a special plastic bag for non-recyclable waste instead.
Most importantly, city officials need to evaluate the needs of their city. If it is particularly windy, they may need to provide covered bins for residence; if there is constant illegal dumping, they may need to provide more accessible recycling and trash centers. The needs of each community vary so widely that it is impossible to prescribe one generic solution.
The important takeaway is that we all need to be doing something as a global community, to increase environmental welfare; and one of the simplest steps an individual can take for a cleaner environment is recycling.
Information on an innovative recycling program developed in the UK by Wrap.org.uk:
Share the costs and benefits of collecting and recycling food waste.
Despite the estimated 10 million tonnes of post-farm gate food waste thrown out across the UK every year, only 1.8 million tonnes is currently recycled. Food waste prevention and minimisation will remain a priority but, by working together, all of those involved in recycling food waste, from producers to collectors and processors, have an important role to play in making sure that the maximum value possible is extracted from food that would otherwise be wasted.
The Food Waste Recycling Action Plan is the industry’s response to this challenge. The Action Plan has been designed to help increase both the supply and quality of household and commercial food waste available for recycling.
This collaborative, industry-led approach will help operators of food waste processing plants secure the future growth of feedstock. What’s more, it will enable food waste collectors to maximise the amount of food waste collected, so that collections can be delivered as cost-effectively as possible.” FROM – wrap.org.uk/content/food-waste-recycling-action-plan
The above example from the UK is an excellent example of how waste can be used productively to generate renewable energy; in biogas produced from waste with AD technologies. Using AD to produce energy is known as waste-to-energy; along with capturing methane from landfills to use for energy. Renewable biogas can be generated from waste, and this is an especially productive use of food waste.
Waste-to-energy (W2E) through AD is prevalent throughout many European countries; and is common practice in countries such as Sweden and Denmark (for district heating, gas for sustainable public transit, energy for municipal grids, as well as local energy generation for farms and homes) – and especially in European cities such as Copenhagen. Using waste to produce energy is an effective waste management strategy, reducing the quantity of waste the ends up in landfills; and is a particularly great way to make otherwise polluting food waste into a productive source of renewable energy.