Innovative Ways Governments Are Incentivizing Recycling
By Dave Fidlin
Composting, single-stream recycling part of the road to the zero-waste dream.
Through a variety of methods - including mandatory recycling and composting programs and vigorous education campaigns - the city of San Francisco has notched an enviable statistic within the realm of local government.
In 2013, city officials reported the community was well on its way to achieving the gold standard of zero-waste. Eighty percent of the city’s residential, commercial and industrial waste is diverted from landfills and instead recycled, composted or repurposed.
The statistic far surpasses what most other communities reported that same year. This begs the question: What is San Francisco doing to that other municipalities, counties and other governing agencies can adopt?
The land of fog and the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, is notoriously progressive, but that singular scenario is not the be all-end all rationale for the success in the Bay area.
The city has devoted significant resources - far more than most governing agencies – to spreading the word about the many ways to keep unwanted items out of landfills. A public-private partnership with the local organization Recology has also been forged.
When the 80-percent figure was first announced, Melanie Nutter, San Francisco’s department of environment director, was quoted on the website Triple Pundit as saying the success occurred because of a focused, concerted effort across the city.
“Innovative policies, financial incentives, as well as outreach and education are all effective tools in our toolbox that have helped San Francisco reach 80 percent diversion,” Nutter said in the article. “We would not have achieved this milestone without the hard work and partnership of many people and businesses across the city.”
Some of San Francisco’s standout policies are plainly noticeable. Case in point: The city has three, rather than the standard two, bins for waste. Blue bins are used for recycling, black for traditional garbage and the more novel green bin for food scraps, organic materials and other items that can be composted.
Another noteworthy development in the city has trickled down to retailers. San Francisco made national headlines several years ago when it banned retailers from using non-compostable plastic bags.
The good news is not all about diverting items away from landfills. Because of its aggressive focus on composting, greenhouse gas emissions within San Francisco have been reduced by double percentage points in the past quarter century.
City leaders have stated their goal is to be at or near a zero-waste benchmark by 2020.
While other large-sized municipalities on par with San Francisco’s massive population have undertaken similar progressive efforts, smaller scale innovative programs have also been notched in suburban and rural communities across the U.S. as well.
Difficult as it is to imagine for urban dwellers, there are communities across the country, particularly in rural communities, without a regular recycling service.
Despite a weak economy, leaders in the small Georgia city of Cartersville decided to implement a curbside recycling program, an effort outlined in a report in American City and Country magazine.
Before the curbside program was introduced, Cartersville residents had to go out of their way and drop off recyclables at a satellite, county-run drop-off site that was well outside the city limits.
Through a series of carefully orchestrated efforts, Bobby Elliott, the city’s public works director, was able to implement a citywide recycling program in exchange for a $2 monthly increase from residents.
In an effort to stay within the city’s financial means, yet move forward with progressive waste handling, Elliott in the magazine report said efficiency was at the forefront of the effort. With backing by city officials, he was authorized to purchase a collection vehicle that maximized the number of stops within a route.
Not long after implementation, the city reported 1,500 participants in the recycling program, a figure that Elliott said was well beyond the initial goal.
Within the past decade, single-stream recycling is an effort that has grown at a rapid clip across the U.S. The reasons for its success are not difficult to understand. By placing all recyclables - paper, plastic and aluminum - in the same container, consumers are more willing to refrain from tossing unwanted items in the ole’ trash can.
In Bloomington, a mid-sized city in central Illinois, single-stream recycling arrived in 2010. According to this report in the Pantagraph newspaper, Public Works Director Jim Karch said the city anticipated a 20-percent increase in recycled materials.
But the article also illustrated the challenges in taking on progressive efforts in some communities. In Normal, a city adjacent to Bloomington, the city’s public works director, Mike Hall, was quoted as saying plans were not in motion to mix materials. The reason: Normal was receiving more compensation from its recycling contractor by sending materials that already had been sorted.
In rural communities, efforts to bring effective recycling programs into the hands of its sparsely populated residents remain ongoing.
“When state legislatures wrote waste reduction and recycling mandates into law and placed responsibility with local governments, few gave special consideration to rural areas,” Debra Siniard Stinnett wrote on the website Waste 360.
In addition to some of the more obvious obstacles - a limited tax base and a traditionally low level of government services - some rural communities have other challenges to contend with, such as fluctuating population figures from one season to the next.
“An extremely successful rural recycling program can extract approximately 9 percent of the residential waste stream if items such as glass, metal containers and newspapers are recovered,” Stinnett wrote. “Adding corrugated containers and other commercial wastes can boost the diversion rate.”
Mirroring a recommendation for other services - such as law enforcement and fire protection - Stinnett in her analysis recommended sparsely populated communities consider a regional approach toward recycling with partnerships forged between other nearby municipalities and, perhaps, the county government.
But there is reason to hope the zero-waste dream can be achieved from the San Franciscos of this country, all the way down to towns with a few hundred people - or, perhaps, even less.
In her analysis, Stinnett said rural areas do have certain strengths that can aid in enhancing recycling services, starting with a strong sense of community, thriftiness and a history of volunteering to make their municipality a better place to live, work and play.