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Making it go “away” – Waste reduction strategies for cities

April 19, 2011

Paper, tires, yard trimmings, glass, electronics, batteries, food, wood, leather, plastics – the municipal solid waste stream is as complex in composition as it is in its disposal. And while not necessarily the most glamorous of topics (it’s is after all just plain “trash” to most), waste management and disposal represent an important and expensive challenge to local governments.

Though most of us are perfectly content taking it to the curb where it magically “goes away,” for cities the challenges of waste disposal are here to stay, and in response – local governments are getting creative. Last month during NLC’s Congressional City Conference members of the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Steering Committee heard from officials representing Swedish municipalities about their sustainability efforts. On the topic of waste the delegates shared innovative strategies they are using to generate biofuel from organic waste and sophisticated processes for separating household waste into as many as ten separate categories.

In the U.S., the range of waste management strategies varies considerably and depends on a number of factors including location of disposal and recycling facilities, funding and public or political support. While some communities continue to struggle to establish cost-effective and publicly-supported curbside recycling programs, innovative waste-to-energy initiatives have been steadily gaining ground in a number of cities, while others are moving forward with aggressive plans to go completely “zero-waste”.

Overall, programs to divert waste through reusing, recycling or composting are slowly gaining favor among local governments and consumers as these efforts reduce the overall quantity (and therefore costs) of solid waste that eventually needs to be collected, transported and safely disposed of.  Private companies such as Recyclebank have been expanding their partnerships with cities to offer consumers financial incentives based on the volume of waste recycled. A handful of entrepreneurial small businesses and municipal-led programs have also emerged to collect organic waste as part of curbside compost programs. And while disposing of electronics has typically been an arduous affair (thus prompting improper disposal or stockpiling) large electronics suppliers have recently launched “buy-back” programs to encourage the proper collection and perhaps even reuse of items or component parts.

Many options are available to reduce solid waste in communities and in turn, produce benefits such as lower operating costs, job creation and improved public and environmental health. Waste Reduction: Strategies for Cities is a new resource from the Sustainability Program at the National League of Cities highlighting four such options – food waste collection, deconstruction of buildings, pay as you throw and e-waste collection. Does your city have a waste management or reduction success story? Share your experiences at sustainability@nlc.org.

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