Viewpoint: Austin provides a model for municipal recycling’s future
By Carl Smith
Most of municipal solid waste — between 55 and 65 percent — is generated in our homes with the majority of it being sent to municipality-owned, operated or licensed disposal facilities. However, a shift is underway to view waste as an economic resource: materials that are recoverable, recyclable, compostable, and convertible to green energy.
Examining best practices followed in cities, towns and municipalities in the U.S. and Canada may help identify this type of proven solution. For example, aspart of anambitious effort of Austin, Texas to reduce the amount of waste its one million households send to landfills by 90 percent by the year 2040, the city:
- Recycled or reused 30 percent of the materials collected at its Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facility in 2011
- From July 2010 to October 2012, produced 23,273 gallons of Austin ReBlend paint, which is available free to residents
- Provided residents with free new or slightly used household chemicals at the HHW facility, such as cleaning products, solvents, pesticides and fertilizers
The city also has innovative means of collecting some HHW. For instance, in addition to accepting batteries at their HHW facility, Austin collects batteries citywide at sites such as municipal buildings, retailers and other convenient locations. Sorted rechargeable batteries are then bulk-shipped to recycling facilities at no cost through a product stewardship program that helps municipalities offset a portion of the handling costs from preparing batteries in accordance with DOT requirements.
Detailed reporting on collection totals and their downstream end-of-life management is important to Austin. The city seeks to use organizations recognized as e-Stewards by the Basel Action Network and R2-certified programs to assure participants that their materials are disposed of properly.
While municipalities like Austin are effectively working to identify and introduce solutions to achieve the greatest results and ensure proper disposal, a successful program depends on the shared responsibility among government, manufacturers, retailers and consumers all of whom have a significant role to play.
As manufacturers address their responsibility for products they introduce into the marketplace, government needs to provide the leadership to the infrastructure, such as collection centers or curbside programs, as well as promote recycling in their communities. None of these efforts, however, can be effective without educated, motivated consumers.
But, with budgetary constraints, public education efforts can often be overlooked. Partnerships with product stewardship programs can help supplement municipalities’ educational programs. Through national and local advertising, a comprehensive website and drop-off locator, consumers can effortlessly find a convenient collection site in their area — saving both time and money for the local government.
As demonstrated by Austin, the goal of reducing waste and minimizing costs can be achieved through commitment, education, partnerships, shared responsibility and innovation. The most exciting part of the success in Austin is the expected shift from sustainability as a cost center to a money saver and opportunity-maker. Austin has long set an example for other cities in its designation as a “Zero Waste city.” Now its exemplary community recycling programs add another environmental accolade for other municipalities to emulate.
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Carl E. Smith is CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a product stewardship organization dedicated to the collection and recycling of batteries and cell phones. He can be reached at Carlsmith@calltorecycle.org.