Cities Take Creative Recycling Approaches
by Harry Grigorian, Dartmouth College
Cities across the nation are taking innovative approaches to improve the environmental performance of waste management systems, using education, infrastructure, or other ventures to go the extra mile. Some of these creative strategies are universally replicable, while others utilize their local geography, culture, and government to leverage additional capacity for environmental initiatives.
Bordentown, New Jersey, a town of 4,000 residents, recently began a program to compost pizza boxes, a material previously hard to recycle due to contamination by oils and other food scraps. This town observed the contents of their material stream and developed a local end market for an underutilized material type. Bordentown, situated in the central part of the Garden State, considers itself part of the so-called “Pizza Belt,” and thus has a high volume of pizza boxes. These items are large, unwieldy, and difficult to handle from the consumer end of the recycling process. To address this problem, the community designed a program that not only serves the environment by diverting an additional material from the landfill, but also benefits the local community by sourcing a valuable organic material to aid composting processes.
Pizza boxes are donated by local residents and delivered to a storage shed next to the local farmer’s market for local farmers to pick up free of charge and use as supplemental organic material for their composting process. The project is a collaboration between local farmers, the Bordentown Environment Commission, and the city’s “Green Team”—a group dedicated to making Bordentown a more sustainable city. A collection shed—specifically for pizza boxes—sits near the local farmer’s market and “fills up to the brim every ten days,” according to Jeff Tober, the project’s creator. One farmer, Jessica Brandeisky, explained that the process involves combining the laid out boxes with their organic material. She said that “They slowly break down over time. They put carbon back into the soil. They also feed our earthworms.”
Similarly, San Francisco innovated a low-cost and time-efficient approach to consumer education and business engagement on local recycling rules through their custom sign maker tool. The PDFs are free, downloadable, and printable via the city’s website; these signs clearly and colorfully depict how to dispose of each material type according to the local recycling facility’s accepted material list. Businesses can easily print and post these at no cost—they do not have to be ordered. The site also has a tool for those who want to customize their own sign. Creators can click and drag the materials most commonly disposed of on business’ signs and add their own text. This allows businesses to create more effective waste and recycling signs that help customers know how to dispose of the specific waste items generated at a location, such as packaging at a restaurant. The signs also come with a built-in Chinese translation which allows for full community engagement.
Lastly, Seattle developed an app to support city-wide education on recycling rules and schedules and provide feedback to local recycling programs. The app, “Recycle It,” allows users to check their waste and recycling collection times, set collection reminders, file missed collection reports, and engage with the city’s recycling program in other ways. Their app is available for both iPhones and Androids, and has a 4.8 and 4.9 rating on those platforms.
Farmer partnerships for pizza box composting, customizable recycling labels, and educational apps are all innovative programs developed by cities to either directly divert materials from the landfill or educate the community on how to recycle right. SWEEP’s certification program encourages these initiatives through its Innovation Credits: The Innovation Credits “[refer] to practices or actions not necessarily outlined in the 5 core Performance Categories (SMMP, WGP, Collection, and PCR and PCD), but demonstrate exemplary performance within solid waste policy, generation, collection, and/or recovery processing and disposal.” These are programs that go above and beyond the practices of most cities in the United States. No matter the size—a small town like Bordentown or an urban metropolis like Seattle or San Francisco—a local government can implement programs to address inefficiencies in waste management unique to their community, and the SWEEP program will encourage and reward their innovation.
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