Recycling Envy: Five American Cities with Excellent Practices

In 2015, the United States sent 171 million tons of trash to landfills. In our age of innovation and awareness, the United States recycled or composted only 34.7 percent of its municipal solid waste—a.k.a. trash—according to the Environmental Protection Association.

Compared to a country like Turkey, which puts 99 percent of its waste in landfills, this number seems progressive. But ranked amongst its developed peers, the United States falls short, significantly lagging behind much of Western Europe, which recycles over 50 percent of its waste, according to the New York Times.

U.S. households have been steadily increasing their trash output—almost double per capita since 1960, according to the EPA. But if we consider the amount we now recycle, which was essentially zero in the 60s, U.S. residents toss about three times what they did in 1960.

Whether our over-the-top packaging is to blame or our culture of mass consumerism, the fact remains that our landfills are, well, filling. On the lighter side, Germans recycle 66 percent of their municipal waste trash, leading the EU. So how does Germany manage to nearly double our recycling efforts?

The secret to their success lies in a culture of environmental stewardship that has been slowly instilled through government mandates—enforced by fines—on both citizens and the manufacturers who produce the trash. Color-coded bins are placed everywhere, from parks and schools to public transit stops and residential collection sites:

  • Yellow for plastic
  • Blue for paper
  • Brown for organic matter
  • Green for colored glass

The emphasis on purposeful separation is underscored by a system of fines imposed on households who miss-sort their trash, the government often penalizing those who contaminate an entire batch of recycling. Green dots placed on the outside of product packaging indicate that it must be recycled, or face paying high fees.

Since our nonexistent recycling efforts in 1960, the U.S. population has almost doubled, and our GDP has gone from $542 billion in 1960 to nearly $21 trillion today. Economic expansion inevitably produces more—more construction, more people and more goods consumed. Responsibly monitoring the environmental impact of expansion and diverting material from landfills is key as our economy continues to grow.

Fortunately, U.S. recycling efforts are increasing, and though the country’s overall effort could use improvement, many major U.S. cities are making huge strides, demonstrating that systemic innovation and a shifting consciousness are very, very possible.

Pushed by aggressive statewide policies, the two major population hubs in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are reaching nearly unprecedented waste recovery rates. Embracing bold change, all Californians must now bring reusable bags to collect their groceries or pay a fee per bag if they forget. The new policy is working towards eliminating the single-use plastic bag litter on waterways, beaches, and roads. By 2017, one year after the ban on distributing single-use plastic bags, the bag litter was down 72 percent, according to Californians Against Waste, a non-profit research and advocacy organization dedicated to waste reduction and recycling programs.

Here are five American cities which are making notable strides in recycling technology and public awareness.

Los Angeles: The Solid Waste Management Act, CalRecycle, and Rethink LA

In the early 1960s, Los Angeles voted against recycling. Now in 2019, the city of almost four million people recycles nearly 80 percent of its waste.

Over 35 years ago, the large-capacity Puente Hills Landfill began brimming with waste. Then-mayor Tom Bradley insisted on incinerators to solve the problem. Advocacy groups and citizens quickly opposed incineration due to its impact on air quality and health, and Bradley focused on recycling instead as the solution. The incineration debacle no doubt brought the problem of waste to the forefront of public attention.

Support from the state soon followed in the form of grants towards recycling infrastructure and education. Government mandates soon reacted to a dire situation as landfills nearly reached capacity. Consequently, California’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Act of 1990 imposed statewide goals of 25 percent recycling by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000.

The Act helped fund efforts to collect and facilitate recycling. Statewide management by CalRecycle also employed local enforcement agencies to move toward its new statewide goals in overall waste recovery—everything from tires and construction materials to trash.

Los Angeles phased in recycling by combining the efforts of private industry and city-owned collection services. The city handles curbside collection and hauls waste to private materials recovery facilities.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, by 2000, LA achieved an unprecedented 65.2 percent recovery rate, far exceeding its initial goals. The city’s new target—90 percent by 2025—is bolstered by a citizen participatory 20-year plan. “Rethink LA” initiatives help educate citizens on the importance of recycling and composting. The numerous sub-programs laid out to substantiate LA’s commitment to recycling include one program for restaurants to compost food waste and another that reduces company’s city tax obligations based on their recycling efforts.

Los Angeles’s recycling achievements and conscientious citizen participation is due in large part to community-wide education and campaigns. From bilingual recycling education to grassroots outreach in low income communities, LA has managed to stay on track toward a zero waste initiative. Unrealistic? Look how quickly the sprawling city re-vectored its wasteful course.

In addition to a cleaner LA, the city’s economy has gotten a boost from the business of recycling: “Nowhere has recycling made such a dramatic impact on the economy as in the City of Los Angeles,” notes Californians Against Waste, which claims that the recycling industry overall adds $1.2 billion annually to LA’s economy.

San Francisco: Zero Waste and Recology

Los Angeles’s success in waste reduction shows that progress is made when governments blend efforts with the private sector. Perhaps the best example of reaping the benefits of both private industry and publicly owned waste infrastructure is San Francisco.

Waste360 notes, “At its core, the San Francisco zero waste program is run like a social enterprise, meaning that its primary purpose for being is to fulfill a mission (i.e. zero waste) and that the program is expected to make a profit while doing so.”

San Francisco’s 80 percent waste diversion rate has succeeded through financial, taxpayer protection of private industry. The city’s waste removal company—Recology—has partnered with the government and enjoys governmental profit-protection. In other words, the government promised it would absorb much of the expense while Recology helped the city to get its zero waste policy underway.

In essence, San Francisco softened the blow for Recology and helped to bolster a kind of community enterprise. Recology rolled out a number of citywide educational programs while it hauled trash and recyclable material to a central processing center—all under a public guarantee of profits.

Seattle: Local Composting and Smaller Trash Cans

Seattle has pledged to reach a 72 percent recovery rate by 2025. In 2017, the city recycled 56.9 percent of its waste and as the city continues to grow, residents still manage to reduce their trash; each person only sends .81 pounds of trash to landfills per day, according to the EPA.

In 2009, forward-thinking Seattle passed a law that made it mandatory for residents to recycle food scraps. Food waste was then mixed with yard waste, and composted in a nearby facility to be sold locally as gardening soil by Cedar Grove Composting.

Presently, Seattle’s trash must be transported by rail 257 miles to a landfill in Arlington, Oregon. The obvious transport costs increase the motivation for the city to find ways to reduce overall waste, particularly since the cost of collecting and processing recycling is almost half the cost of sending trash down to Oregon.

One key to Seattle’s success was its three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling, which allowed time to educate residents and begin the process of enforcement through penalties. Notices were given to residents who did not comply and eventually fines, though the EPA claims that few fines were necessary.

Seattle’s trash utility is publicly owned and sends waste to two city-owned transfer centers to process recycling and trash where private companies are contracted to process the rubbish. They are handsomely compensated when they send less to landfills.

Residents are also motivated to waste less through lower collection rates. A quick look at the city’s fee schedule shows that the larger the trash can, the more the monthly rate. Interestingly, there is no option for collection of a 50-gallon container, the typical size distributed in many U.S. cities by local trash service providers. It costs double the amount—a whopping $74.30—for Seattle residents to have a 64-gallon container of trash picked up as it does a 32-gallon container ($37.15 monthly).

The city’s utility website urges residents to reduce trash by recycling, particularly food waste and paper products, noting that food waste makes up 30 percent of most municipal waste, and paper, 20 percent. Seattle’s success proves that behavior does indeed change when financial incentives are involved.

The trend towards the privatization of landfills and trash collection has been growing steadily since the 1980s, and now roughly half of all U.S. trash collection utilities are privately owned.

One problem with privatization, according to Waste360, is that communities lose control over the landfill’s waste capacity as well as rates. Last year, rates across the country increased by 6.3 percent—much higher than the 2.3 percent overall inflation rate.

Portland: The Opportunity to Recycle Act and Youth Education

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (2018), despite the growth of construction brought on by economic expansion, Portland managed to recover 42.8 percent of its waste generated in 2017.

The state of Oregon’s recently amended Opportunity to Recycle Act governs statewide recycling programs and sets a statewide goal that 55 percent of waste be recovered by 2025. The law regulates cities’ recycling and waste management and also requires more recovery from larger cities with more resources.

Many small rural Oregon cities cancelled costly curbside pick-up services and moved to drop-off depot recycling programs where an attendant assists citizens in the proper placement of recyclables. The increased levels of contamination in the single-bin method of curbside pick-up combined with the difficult access to far-away Portland-based recycling processors made curbside service simply too costly for smaller cities with fewer resources.

Portland has set a lofty goal of a 90 percent waste recovery rate by 2030, according to the city’s Planning and Sustainability Department. To facilitate awareness, the local Portland Metro organization educates students of all ages, from puppet shows in the elementary schools to multi-day presentations in high school classrooms. Secondary students discuss the negative impact of waste and its connection to climate change, challenging students to examine how they consume. Middle schoolers are challenged to track their own changes in behavior as they strive to conserve resources with an educational series on ecological footprints, food waste, and conscious consumption.

The Portland Metro’s sophisticated education program on recycling rightfully targets change at a generational level. The area says their goal is to encourage students “to be part of the ‘new story’ of climate change.” Quite an inspiring message for future stewards.

Much of a city’s decision to recycle, aside from being an environmental one, is an economic one. Until January of 2018, many cities were selling their recyclable materials to China. Many small Oregon towns struggled with the recycling dilemma once China stopped accepting global recyclables. In the wake of China’s ban, cities were forced to find new solutions for their recyclables or send those items to landfills. Some cities have sadly resorted to burning recyclable trash in pollutant-inducing incinerators. The city of Boise instead sought an innovative way to solve the economic problem of recycling.

Boise: Renewlogy and Hefty EnergyBags

Boise residents were temporarily restricted on what plastics they could recycle while the city sought a solution to China’s recycling ban. The city soon partnered with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel. For the initial roll-out, twenty-six 13-gallon orange, Hefty® EnergyBags were sent to all Boise households, enough for one year of curbside recycling service.

Boise residents were quickly educated on the new orange bag program, designed to recycle light-weight plastics that are typically sent to landfills in most cities, such as plastic bags and food packaging, even candy wrappers. Residents put the orange-bagged items into their normal blue recycle bins for pickup. Nearby processing centers sent the separated orange-bagged materials to Salt Lake-based Renewlogy for diesel conversion. In just two months, Boise sent a whopping 54,000 tons of plastic to Salt Lake—quite a load for flimsy plastics.

According to the City of Boise’s Public Works, 98 percent of Boise residents participate in recycling, so it’s no wonder that the program was an instant success. Renewlogy claims that their fuels have a 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at approximately one third of the cost. The company has collected one million tons in the past year from Boise and Omaha, combined—which equates to almost 170,000 barrels of fuel.

What companies like Renewlogy are successfully proving is that recycling isn’t just an environmental must; it’s going to play a key role in economic growth moving forward.

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