Last night there was a presentation by Alex Danovitch, an expert in zero waste. Earlier this year when Nether Providence Township passed a resolution calling for an end to waste incineration they also called on the township to investigate zero waste systems. The township EAC is interested in figuring out what that looks like.
The talk last night was helpful. Much of what was discussed was outside the realm of what the township controls (redesigning packaging and products to waste less, banning non-recyclable plastics, financial incentives for recycling facilities, etc.) but one of the key concepts is that materials need to be closed cycle. That is, glass or plastic that is a bottle needs to go back to being a bottle. Turning it into park benches, coke for furnaces, cover for landfills or jet fuel is not a solution because that’s not a sustainable practice, it creates new demand for waste and means we still need to extract more materials for new items.
Redesign, repair and reuse are the best strategies, but generally outside the township control. I suspect that groups like the successful but secret WSSD swap group could be promoted to encourage these strategies. WSSD swap group may be one of our best waste diversion programs.
Recycling and composting come next on the list. I’ve heard a lot of press skeptical of recycling, but it turns out the system can work well. 60% of waste is paper – which can be profitably recycled. After China closed import of most recycled goods, a network of U.S. based paper recyclers has popped up, which has maintained demand for recycled paper and cardboard. Plastic is the next major source of waste. And here there’s a lot of deliberate misinformation from the industry. The talk last night stated that plastics labeled 1, 2 and 5 are recyclable – demand for these in the last year has been really high. The rest are pretty much worthless. So focus on 1, 2, and 5’s where you can – this category includes soda bottles, milk jugs and yogurt containers typically. “Compostable” plastics like PLA are problematic – they tend to leach into whatever food they’re used with and most composting facilities are not equipped to hand them. The next major source of recycled waste is glass. Clear, green and amber glass is recyclable. Its not as profitable as the above plastics, paper or metal, but recycling it is still cheaper than landfilling it. Other glass is worthless – so try to use clear, green and amber bottles where possible. Finally, metal is recyclable and has always been profitable.
Composting removes another large source of waste that tends to create lots of gasses in landfills. Back yard composting is possible and practiced by many in Nether Providence. This use keeps the food closed cycle by returning food waste to the earth. Commercial composting may be a better choice for many people as it can be hard to compost meat and some other foods yourself. Kitchen Harvest was cited as a local example of a successful commercial composting program. We’ve used them for a few months now and its incredibly easy. On a larger scale, they collect composting from Swarthmore College and Media Borough.
One of the other suggestions was that townships separate recycle hauling from processing, which the township did last year. So, kudos there. Another suggestion was to collect waste less often. How much would I love this! We were talking with a friend yesterday that commented how little trash is in their bin each week. This would mean less heavy trucks tearing up the road, less pollution from those trucks, and increased motivation to compost/recycle or waste less. Another program suggested is pay as you throw – if you pay per bag of trash, you have another incentive to waste less. In other areas, this kind of program has led to huge decreases in waste.
One of the key takeaways is that zero waste does not require any new technologies – for most of human history, society was zero waste or close to it. It will require changes, but this is within reach immediately.