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
Sustainable cities, like San Diego, have eco-city designs that prioritize consideration of social, economic, and environmental impacts of climate mitigation policies and sustainability policies. Green cities also prioritize resilient, thriving urban habitats for existing residents.
San Diego bills itself as “America’s Finest City”, and a sustainability powerhouse. Factors leading to San Diego becoming a city that runs entirely on renewable energy include the higher-than-average amount of sunshine in the area, along with the consensus among city leaders to pursue sustainability as a top priority. Additionally, California’s push for 100% renewable energy (100RE) throughout the state has allowed San Diego to attempt to reach 100RE fairly quickly. To this end, San Diego has pushed ahead with its San Diego Climate Action Plan.
Sunny San Diego
San Diego is famous for its year-round mild climate, its bays and harbors, and popular beaches.
The city is also known for its US military ports and bases (especially for the Navy in downtown SD & the Marines in Camp Pendleton, North San Diego County – but also for bases of other military branches).
In recent decades,San Diego has become increasingly internationally recognized for its emergence as a global center for clean energy, healthcare, biotechnology, and technological research & development.
The San Diego Convention Center, and hotels in Coronado, host many national and international conferences including; many medical conferences, Politifest, the Global Investment Forum, and the Food Waste Solution Summit.
There are also many smart tech. and sustainability conferences put on by CleanTech San Diego. CleanTech San Diego is a non-profit trade organization and think-tank that promotes San Diego as a global leader in clean and sustainable technologies.
“Cleantech San Diego is uniquely suited to support industry by fostering collaborations across the private-public-academic landscape, leading advocacy efforts to promote cleantech priorities, and encouraging investment in the San Diego region.” – CleanTech San Diego.
San Diego’s Sustainability Initiatives
The City of San Diego is a leader of sustainability in the United States. An organization that represents the city’s substantial contribution to sustainability was launched by Cleantech San Diego in 2011 – Smart Cities San Diego. Smart Cities San Diego is a public-private organization that advances sustainable, energy efficient technological development throughout San Diego county, renewable energy technologies, and water efficiency.
Smart Cities San Diego also has initiatives to support greenhouse gas reduction and lowering the carbon footprint of San Diego.
The push for 100RE is a major part of the San Diego Climate Action Plan (CAP); adopted citywide in December 2015. San Diego’s CAP is billed as a continuing push to make San Diego, “America’s Finest City”, now also its most sustainable city. San Diego plans to eliminate half of all greenhouse gas emissions (reach 50% GHG reduction by 2035 compared to 2010 levels) from the city and run entirely on renewable energy by 2035.
In addition to San Diego’s CAP, the city has ambitious zero-waste goals:
The San Diego City Council recently adopted a zero waste plan that sets goals of 75 percent waste diversion by 2020; 90 percent by 2035, a goal consistent with the proposed Climate Action Plan; and “zero waste” by 2040. FROM – sandiegouniontribune.com/san-diego-aggressive-recycling
SDG&E and 100RE
The utility that is the lone energy provider to San Diego, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), is one of only several utilities nationwide to offer a 100RE option. San Diego’s sole utility (a de-facto monopoly), SD&E, offers an option for 50% or 100% solar energy as part of their “EcoChoice” plan. The EcoChoice plan offered straight from SDG&E, not a company providing the renewable energy service as an option for residents and businesses to the utility, an “aggregator” energy service.
Community Choice in San Diego
An alternative energy service to the utility is an aggregator energy company; for example the San Diego and statewide “Community Choice” program. Community Choice operates throughout California, including San Diego, and also offers 50% and 100% options to supply residents/ businesses with power from renewable energy, but SDG&E still provides the actual energy maintenance service.
Community Choice is similar to SDG&E’s “EcoChoice”, but the customer pays the private energy aggregator to generate renewable energy, while SDG&E still maintains the actual energy service. Under Community Choice, for example, SDG&E still maintains the grid infrastructure, but instead of paying SDG&E for solar from exclusively large utility-scale solar farms, the customers pay Community Solar and support solar from a variety of local and state-wide renewable energy projects. By paying SDG&E directly through EcoChoice, residents and businesses are paying the utility directly to generate renewable energy. Both services help support renewable energy.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the San Diego Climate Action Plan:
“The plan identifies steps the City of San Diego can take to achieve the 2035 [climate] targets. That list includes creating a renewable energy program, implementing a zero-waste plan, and changing policy to have a majority of the City’s [public transit] fleet be electric vehicles…the city has committed to slashing its greenhouse gases 15% below 2010 levels by 2020 and 50% below that benchmark by 2035. The goals are intended to mirror the state targets of reducing emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.”
“…in 2016 the city had already cut its emissions by 19%, a 2% improvement from the previous year. The report largely attributed that progress to the state’s strict vehicle-emissions standards and renewable energy requirements (for the city’s utility, SDG&E)…” – San Diego CAP 2016 PDF
Sustainability initiatives in San Diego (including a couple of potential initiatives)
Public transportation options in San Diego include the MTS bus system, commuter rail (The Coaster), and light rail (The San Diego Trolley). Public transit in San Diego accounts for only 3.5% of county residents for all transportation in, and to & from, the city, for people living within 90 minutes of the city. The majority of people drive alone to work in the city, with a modest amount (<10%) choosing to carpool. Far fewer people walk or bike to work in San Diego city, generally people that already live in the area. There is potential for further development of public mass transit and alternative transit like biking, walking, and electric micro-mobility.
By focusing on developing, and increasing the use of, public transportation and sustainable alternative transit in San Diego, the city can most effectively reduce its carbon footprint. This is especially true of light rail in the city, which runs entirely on electricity.
California mandates that every city in the state is to run on 100% clean energy by 2045. This is part of an effort by a group of bipartisan lawmakers within the state to have California make good on the state’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2045. The opposition and legal challenges to this effort are from fossil fuel companies, lawmakers who side with the fossil fuel companies, and California counties and cities that want to continue to keep natural gas in the energy mix for their municipalities beyond 2045. San Diego is already committed to 100% renewable energy, and seeks more than California’s GHG reduction goal – aiming for net zero GHGs by 2035.
San Diego County already has a few cities that have made 100RE pledges, and has the highest number of 100RE pledges for any county in the nation.
Here’s the PDF for the full 74-page San Diego Climate Action Plan that was adopted in December 2015 (the San Diego CAP has been updated since passage, and some of those updates are reflected in this article and the PDF of the plan Green City Times links to here): sandiego.gov/final_july_2016_cap.pdf
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.