recycle, recycling, trash, compost

That’s (NOT) Garbage: Reduce, Reuse … DIVERT Waste


If you’re alarmed by the possibility of burying 42 Giza Pyramids of trash in American landfills every year (per Tuesdays’s post: That’s Garbage: Talking Trash About Waste Generation), what can you do about it?   The “three R’s” we learned about in school still pertain today and before we even talk about recycling its important to put in a little PSA about the importance of keeping waste out of both the trash can AND the recycling bin.

Stop Waste BEFORE it Hits the Bin

Odds are you’ve already heard the lecture on keeping disposables out of your life … but if you’d like a clever and information packed refresher, take 20 minutes and watch The Story of Stuff to remind yourself of the benefits of reducing and reusing and the general perniciousness of the consumer economy.

So … We can buy more mindfully, say “no thanks” to plastic bags at the store and repair our broken items rather than replacing them … and we can recycle.  That is, we can support municipal programs to “divert” waste from landfills in several ways.

What is Waste Diversion?

Put simply, waste diversion is anything that keeps trash out of landfills.  By that definition, diversion includes activities like donating old clothes and repairing broken furniture.  But for the purposes of waste management calculations diversion is the percentage of total (curbside) waste that is “diverted” from the landfill by recycling by the total tonnage of waste disposed of.  Some (few) cities also have municipal composting programs or (more common) yard waste pickup which remove organic materials from the landfill conveyor belt, too.

Chicago reports an overall diversion rate of 45% which compares favorably with the EPA reported national average of 34% but could be much improved.  Check out Chicago’s 2009 Waste Characterization Study for the break down of our waste materials (29% organics, 29% paper) and what happens to them.

How Recycling Programs Work

Source Separated

The good, old-fashioned one-bin-per-type (glass, plastics, metals, paper …) method which results in a line of recycling containers (usually with complex signage to explain each bin), requires specialized collection trucks with bins for each type as well.  The trade-off for this complexity is a minimal sorting facility and a high quality supply to factories which buy recyclables.

Dual stream recycling

A middle ground system which divides out paper (and cardboard etc) from other recyclable (this is because  paper is mostly highly susceptible to contamination by other recyclables (un washed plastics or glass bottles) and manufacturers often won’t accept dirty paper materials.

Single Stream Recycling  (This is what Chicago uses.)

Most popular from a supply perspective, a Single Stream Recycling, or Commingled, program means that all the various recyclable materials are stored together and collected together, then separated for processing at a central recycling plant.

Pros and Cons of Single Stream and Separated Systems

Single Stream Programs are convenient for the businesses and individuals who need only two bins (trash and recycling) and touted as easier to get individual buy-in.  Similarly they are popular with cities and waste hauling companies because they require minimal truck equipment since all the sorting takes place at the recycling facility.

On the other hand, the quality of the separated materials are often lower and the products of single stream recycling materials are less marketable to and valuable for the industries which make use of the salvaged materials. What’s the good of collecting recyclables if no one finds it cost-effective to RECYCLE THEM?

In a February 2013 article in Resource Recycling, Daniel Lantz and Clarissa Morawski argue that, despite its popularity with America cities over the last three decades, single stream recycling may not be a safe choice for the long term.  It may not be able to meet the quality requirements which make recyclable goods … recyclable.  One county in our neighbor state of Michigan breaks down the pros and cons … and their reasons for choosing a dual stream system in this clear, persuasive website:

We can do better.

There are many ways to improve our numbers and our overall perspective on waste management in this country and lots have them have been piloted separately and together in well studies programs around the country.

The most highly touted model is San Francisco; much is made of its 80% diversion rate.  That number may actually be deceptive – Samantha MacBride of CUNY notes that SF’s calculation includes large volumes of construction waste being re-used in infill and roadworks projects which aren’t part of other city’s calculations and estimates that their comparative diversion rate is more like 60%.  Still their program is admirable on many levels.  Municipal composting keeps organics out of the landfill and every household and business is issued compost, recycling and trash containers with multi-lingual instructions in how to use them.  Read what they say about their own program here on the page that the city titles Zero Waste FAQ.

Can we get to Zero Waste?

The jury is decidedly out on this question.  True zero waste can’t be achieved purely in the post-consumer waste sector because huge amounts of trash are generated to PRODUCE the consumer goods that we then get to chose to maintain, recycle or trash.   However, the fact remains that treating the physical elements in our lives as totally disposable is the ultimate in short term thinking and that increases in diversion will become more and more desirable as we continue to fill up existing landfill space and become aware of the ramifications of existing waste management problems.  It can certainly be a personal goal for each of us.  Achievable or not, setting our sights on less waste can’t a waste of time.