Sustainable America: West Coast cities leading the way with recycling
By Anne Stanley
The U.S. West Coast is known for a lot of things: balmy weather, pristine beaches, inclusive culture, progressive thinking, premier educational institutions, gay rights and Silicon Valley, to name a few.
The West Coast also boasts of a larger share of green cities than perhaps anywhere else in the country. Maybe it’s their deep-rooted environmental activism, or the younger population that inhabits the region, or just something in the air, but West Coast cities are leading the way to creating a ‘sustainable America’.
Judging purely by recycling rates, San Francisco is the undisputed champion. The city achieved an 80 percent rate of recycling in 2013, a stark contrast to the national average of about 35 percent.
Los Angeles recycles 76 percent of its refuse, San Jose recycles 71 percent, and San Diego recycles 65 percent as of 2013. These are all sterling examples of green cities in California, according to information available on LA’s Bureau of Sanitation website. But the state isn’t alone. Regionally, the west cost is committed to recycling. Portland, Ore., recycles 70 percent of its waste and Seattle, Wash., recycles 55 percent.
Innovation leading the way
What is it that sets these cities apart from the rest of the country? What do they do differently to up their “green quotient”? While systemic source reduction, reuse, and mandatory recycling play an extremely important role in their success, these cities are also the leaders in innovative thinking.
Take, for example, the San Francisco Department of Environment’s joint initiative with Dopper Foundation to raise awareness about clean water and plastic waste. The two organizations partnered to create a 14-foot plastic wave from 6,000 single-use plastic water bottles supplied by global metal recycler Sims Metal Management at the city’s UN Plaza. All Bay Area residents were invited to ‘ride’ the wave, while getting educated about the negative environmental impact of bottled water.
Events like these bring environmental sustainability to the cities’ collective consciousness. That and some tough and sweeping rules governing waste management and recycling.
Rules that rule the game
In California the use of disposable plastic bags is banned. The ban was first introduced by San Francisco in 2007, but was soon adopted by the entire state. In 2009, San Francisco made recycling and composting mandatory and introduced fines for tossing compostable waste into regular trash bins. To its credit, the city made it simple for residents to sort their trash by using color-coded bins.
Many local governments on the West Coast have also taken the lead in banning polystyrene food takeout containers that have for long been a huge source of litter. Additionally, Seattle’s solid waste plans call for landfill bans on all compostable organics.
Another West Coast trend that helps its cities achieve high diversion rates is mandatory commercial recycling. Commercial waste comprises about 40 to 60 percent of the overall waste stream. It seems, mandatory commercial recycling programs are effective in achieving diversion goals.
While mandatory commercial recycling has been in place in Portland for many years (since 1996), the state of California passed a statewide mandate for it in 2012.
West Coast cities are also setting an example for responsible recycling. A case in point is San Jose’s scrap metal recycling bill.
Designed to discourage metal theft, the bill requires the payment of any non-ferrous metal scrap purchased by a San Jose junk dealer or recycler to be made by only by a check that is mailed to the seller, unlike the earlier system wherein the seller was able to pick up cash or check in person after the third business day of the transaction.
There’s no denying that the West Coast cities are ‘putting their money where their mouth is’ when it comes to responsible environment sustainability. This is not to say that the rest of the country is not doing its bit. But giving credit where it’s due and learning lessons from others’ success is what America is all about, right?
Anne Staley is an independent environmentalist. Her work has been featured in Green Economy Coalition & Green Moxie.