Solid waste is a messy business. But it's here to stay, until some brilliant scientists figures out exactly what we should do with our garbage.

There are ways to reduce the amount of waste that goes into a landfill, however. And with the number of landfills decreasing, public works directors should be looking for ways to decrease the amount of solid waste that goes into these landfills. One way is to divert waste into other streams. The old catchphrase, reduce-reuse-recycle, comes into play for many public works and municipal solid waste departments.

Diverting waste reduces a municipality's payments of landfill tipping fees, which have been increasing over the past few years nationwide. More importantly, a sizeable portion of what we throw away contains valuable resources like metals, glass, paper, wood, and plastic that can be reprocessed and reused as raw materials. Many states and municipalities have taken steps to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills and to prevent waste handling problems. Some cities are just beginning to evaluate waste diversion options, while other municipalities or counties have aggressive programs in place.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supports a goal of 35% recycling by 2008, although some states or municipalities have already pushed well beyond that number and have achieved recycling as high as 60%. But many cities ask themselves if they can afford it, if they have the manpower, or if they have the knowledge. Here are some success stories.

The Key is Setting Goals

Pennsylvania enacted a recycling law in 1988, setting a goal of 25% diversion by 1997. The state met its goal in 1996, then pushed on to 35% by 2001. Studies conducted for the Northwest Recycling Council and the National Recycling Coalition indicated that Pennsylvania contributed 10% of the nation's recycling economic activity, including more than 81,000 jobs with an annual payroll of $2.9 billion at 3247 reuse and recycling establishments.

“Recycling is a real driver of Pennsylvania's economy, and we expect continued innovations in practices and technology will only increase its contributions and importance,” said Charlie Young, Department of Environmental Protection information specialist.

The state's recycling law made recycling mandatory for residents, businesses, schools, and other institutions in the larger cities. This dramatically increased the state's diversion rates, making it one of the highest in the nation early in the diversion game. “The law also provided a Recycling Fund, fueled by a $2 fee on waste disposed at municipal waste landfills and resource recovery facilities,” said Young. “The Recycling Fund has helped support the state's recycling collection, processing, and manufacturing infrastructure. Nearly $500 million has been passed back to local governments in the form of grants to provide the tools to establish and maintain the programs. In response, three times the number of municipalities required by law to recycle have established recycling programs.”

This success rate was achieved through many different collection methods. Most of the state's programs offer commingled collection. Some are source-separated recycling programs, while single-stream recycling collection is emerging in the southern and southeastern portions of the state. “Most of the 213 pay-as-you-throw programs in Pennsylvania use tags or bags that must be purchased by residents for waste collection. Some limit the number of containers that can be set out for collection, with extra service requiring tags,” said Young.

Diversion Conversion

How do you convince city leaders to start a diversion program or improve diversion rates? Start by telling them some of the ways this can be achieved. A municipality can increase its diversion rate by composting organic materials, improving collection efficiency, using pay-as-you-throw programs, tapping a wide range of materials for recovery, encouraging citizen involvement by making participation convenient, offering service to multi-family dwellings, and augmenting curbside collection with drop-offs. Participation from institutions and commercial establishments can be encouraged by providing waste audits, listing drop-off sites and recycling services and making them convenient, publicizing marketing options for secondary materials, accepting materials at public processing centers, and providing pickup of a wide range of commercial/institutional recyclables.

“We have an aggressive education/outreach program, which works collectively with a number of local organizations, government agencies, private businesses/industries, and media,” said Barbara J. Lucks, materials recovery/education coordinator with the Springfield, Mo., Public Works Department. “For example, our paper contractor, Nestle Purina PetCare Co., provides classroom presentations in our elementary schools as assistance to the city's educational efforts. Others participate during special events, such as Earth Day and America Recycles Day.”

Missouri's diversion rate goal is 40%, and Lucks' waste district, consisting of five counties, has a diversion rate of approximately 38%. To get the word out to local residents, her district previously counted on tipping fee revenue to pay for education programs. Around 1996, “the local national haulers chose to divert Springfield's trash to their own landfills, resulting in an approximately 50% reduction in our tipping fee revenue,” said Lucks. That reduced income hurt, and now the city must rely on nonpaid methods to promote diversion.

Springfield's Integrated Solid Waste Management System is one of only three in the state that boasts a “full menu,” said Lucks. It includes a landfill, household chemical collection center, yard waste recycling center, education programs, recycling drop-off centers, and an award-winning market development component.