Five Ways Cities and Towns Can Slash Trash and Fight Climate Change

We can build sustainable communities and fight climate change with zero waste programs.

Kirstie Pecci | @KirstiePecci

In September 2018, leaders from across the country – including CLF’s President, Bradley Campbell – and the globe gathered in San Francisco, California at the Global Climate Action Summit to exchange ideas about how we can address the most pressing issue of our time: climate change.

The Summit also challenged cities and towns around the world to step up on numerous issues, including building sustainable communities. It’s local action committing to global goals that will ultimately lead to transformative change.

Pledging to cut carbon emissions by switching to local, clean energy is a well-known way to slow climate change. But clean energy alone isn’t enough. Another key is to reduce the amount of waste we generate and throw away. We can build thriving, sustainable communities for future generations while avoiding the polluting emissions that come with making new products and burying and burning our trash.

Building Sustainable Communities by Cutting Waste

As part of the Summit’s Sustainable Communities challenge, cities were asked to commit to three key goals:

  1. Cut the waste they generate by at least 15 percent per capita by 2030.
  2. Reduce the amount of municipal solid waste (aka: trash) disposed in landfills or incinerators by at least 50 percent by 2030.
  3. Increase the diversion rate from landfills and incinerators to at least 70 percent by 2030.

These commitments can help reduce climate-damaging emissions and keep our cities livable into the future. The dangers of our cradle-to-grave production of goods are astronomical and far-reaching – and harm our climate. Not only do landfills and incinerators emit toxic pollutants into our air and water, but simply disposing of goods and then making new products from virgin materials leads to even more greenhouse gas emissions. When you include the manufacturing, processing, packaging, and shipping of products consumed by those living and working in a city or town, material consumption and waste emissions can account for about 40 percent of a city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

But a solution exists: Zero Waste. Not only would implementing Zero Waste programs like the ones outlined below dramatically cut polluting emissions, they would conserve resources upstream, decrease toxic pollution, and create new jobs. Zero Waste programs also save communities money over the long term.

How New England Is Tackling the Zero Waste Challenge

The six New England states send about 12 million tons of trash to landfills and incinerators every year. But we know that can be reduced.

Cities and towns that have adopted and implemented Zero Waste plans – like Nantucket and San Francisco – are sending about 80 percent less trash to landfills and incinerators than they used to. Vermont has also cut the amount of trash it generates by three to five percent each year since it began implementing its Universal Recycling Law in 2015.

Such changes can have enormous impacts. For instance, if Massachusetts created 20 percent less trash, recycled everything currently recyclable, and composted what could be composted, the emissions impact would be equivalent to taking a third of the state’s cars off the road each year. What’s more, it would cost you, me, and our neighbors much less than sending 5.6 million tons of waste to disposal (at a cost of $80 to $100 a ton).

So how can New England get there from here?

What New England Needs to Do Next to Cut Our Waste

This question is being asked and answered in Massachusetts as we speak. Every 10 years, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) must develop a plan to manage the state’s waste. With a new plan in the works for 2020–2030, we’re urging MassDEP to implement Zero Waste programs in its draft. After much study and stakeholder input, here are the solutions that we recommend MassDEP, as well as New England’s cities and towns, adopt.

  1. Create incentives for people to throw away less stuff. When a city or town requires residents to pay more for trash by the bag and/or limits how much they can throw away for free, the amount of trash goes down 20 to 50 percent within a year.  “Pay as you throw” (PAYT) and “save money and reduce trash” (SMART) programs are two examples. Worcester and Fall River in Massachusetts and Bath, Maine, have all seen steep cuts in waste and saved millions of dollars by implementing PAYT programs.
  2. Provide curbside composting. Food and yard waste tossed into landfills contribute significant climate-damaging methane emissions. Providing a way for suburban and urban residents to compost wherever there’s curbside trash pickup – and requiring rural residents to compost in their backyards – goes a long way to addressing this problem. Plus, composting creates local jobs (about 20 times more than incineration for every 10,000 tons of food waste), captures carbon, and lowers trash pickup costs for cities and towns. In New England, compost tipping fees are usually at least $20 less per ton than incineration or landfilling.
  3. Improve recycling programs. One of the best ways to improve recycling systems and cut landfill waste is to ban items that are not recyclable. For instance, because single-use plastic bags, polystyrene takeout containers, and plastic cutlery aren’t recyclable, they usually end up in a landfill, incinerator, or out in the environment as litter. But often, well-meaning people toss them in their recycling bins. Just one plastic bag mixed in with a bin of recyclables can twine around a conveyer belt and shut down recycling – and the more of this type of contamination there is, the worse the problem.
  4. Require universal access to composting and recycling in the industrial, commercial, and institutional sector. Reduction, recycling, and composting programs all reinforce each other. This is especially true when these practices are the norm in every aspect of people’s lives: homes, offices, factories, schools, town halls, and parks. Industrial, commercial, and institutional facilities should all be required to provide composting and recycling options wherever they provide trash receptacles.
  5. Invest in staff. It takes dedicated staff to set goals, measure how much waste a city or town produces, track the metrics needed to evaluate progress, educate the public, and enforce zero waste programs. The people who work in New England’s local and state governments care about climate change and want to improve the programs they run. But they can’t do it if they don’t have the resources. We need to spend a little money now to save big money – and the planet – down the line.

A version of this blog was originally published on September 14, 2018.

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