What is “Waste Diversion” and what are the most common forms?
When you’re done with your takeout meal or your coffee cup from your favorite coffee shop, in most cases, these single-use products end up in the landfill. We generate 4.9 lbs of trash per day, which quickly adds up and has tremendous impacts on our environment and economy. What if there was a way to redirect these items from the landfill and reduce the 728,000 tons of garbage put into landfills each day? Waste diversion, the act of redirecting waste from landfills to instead be recycled, composted, or systematically reduced, does just that.
The 3 most commonly found forms of waste diversion include: recycling, composting, and source reduction. Recycling is by far the most popular and well-known mode of diversion, with ~23% of our Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the U.S. currently recycled. Recycling is the process of turning materials into a new product or material, with common recyclable items including: aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, clean paper and cardboard, aluminum foil, and plastic bottles, jugs, and tubs.
Composting is the natural process and decomposition of organic matter that has and can be industrialized to divert organic waste from our landfills. Around 9.3% of our MSW in the U.S. is currently composted, but an estimated 37% of our waste here in Eagle County could be composted. Common compostable items including: any food, napkins, paper towel, yard waste, BPI-certified compostable serviceware, and greasy paper and cardboard (pizza boxes). You can also compost right in your own backyard!
Reducing how much we consume and shifting our consumption to well-designed products and services is the most preferred way to divert waste from our landfills per Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines - who would’ve thought, the most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place! Although recycling and buying a recycled product requires less energy, all of our stuff requires the use of fossil fuels, new materials, water for production, packaging, and transportation to its final destination.
Why Divert? - Environmental and Socioeconomic Benefits
Diverting waste from our landfill not only makes common sense systematically, but also provides many environmental and socioeconomic benefits. From an environmental standpoint, minimizing waste and resource consumption conserves energy (13,080,970 BTUs - equivalent to conserving the annual energy use of 142,808 households), mitigates climate change, reduces water usage, prevents toxin creations, and minimizes our impact on the environment. For example, diverting organic matter to a composting facility rather than a landfill significantly reduces the creation of methane - a greenhouse gas that is 26% more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and accelerates climate change. When organic waste makes its way to our landfills, it engages in what’s called an anaerobic process as it decomposes with other material found in the landfill. Organic waste that makes it to a composting facility aerobically processes and does not produce methane because methane-producing microbes are not active in the presence of oxygen. Landfilled food waste alone is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than that of the airline industry in the US, as it accounts for 8% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Now let’s dive into the resource efficiency benefits of diverting our waste from the landfill. When using recycled aluminum scraps to make aluminum cans, it requires 95% less energy than making cans from raw materials. As for compost, returning organic waste into our soil can aid in soil health as 28% of cropland in the US is losing soil faster than it can regenerate. As of 2019, 95% of what was found in Colorado’s waste stream could be diverted from the landfill, so the potential is vast when it comes to saving energy, resource efficiency, and mitigating climate change.
Diverting waste from our landfills can also positively impact our economy. The EPA overviews the economic benefits of recycling in the U.S., including creating 1.57 jobs, $76,000 in wages, and $14,101 in tax revenues for every 1,000 tons of materials recycled. Here in Colorado, recycling and composting efforts boosted the local and state economy with nearly $195,000,000 in total wages earned from recycling and composting, compared to landfilling.
Here in Colorado, communities recycled and composted over 1.2 million tons of materials in 2018, up nearly 75,000 tons compared to 2017. However, Colorado surprisingly continues to be one of the worst states at recycling and one of the most wasteful states in the country, generating over 15,900,000 tons of materials in 2018 (from residential, commercial, and industrial sources). In Eagle County, we’ve outlined in our Climate Action Plan to divert 30% of waste from the landfill, and to specifically divert 80% of organics (like food and yard waste) by 2030. So what can we do to be better and reach our county-wide goals? Here are some simple ways to integrate sustainable waste management strategies into your life.
- Recycle - There is FREE access to recycling for everyone in Eagle County. There are free recycling drop-site locations in Vail, Red Cliff, Avon, Edwards, Eagle and Gypsum. Vail Honeywagon, Vail Valley Waste and Waste Management also offer curbside recycling pick up services for businesses and residents. Reach out to your hauler or check out the drop sites today to start recycling!
- Compost - Eagle County has a number of composting options for residents and businesses:
- EverGreen Zero Waste: EverGreen Zero Waste hauls compost from commercial customers in Eagle County for processing at the Pitkin County compost facility.
- Honeywagon Organics: Honeywagon Organics hauls compost from commercial customers to their compost facility in Wolcott. They also have a Community Compost Drop Site program for residential composters. Drop site locations and sign up information are available on their website. Residential customers also receive vouchers for finished compost, so you can put the compost you helped produce right back in your garden!
- West Vail Curbside Compost Pilot Program: Residents in West Vail can sign up for the Town of Vail’s curbside compost pilot program with Vail Honeywagon! Residents and a limited number of HOA/multi-family buildings can participate through April 30, 2022 with a rate subsidized by the Town of Vail. Sign up on the website!
- Do-it-Yourself: You can also compost all on your own, right at home. There are plenty of at-home options like backyard compost bins and vermicompost (worm) set ups. At-home options can be more sensitive than controlled commercial facilities so always be extra mindful of what you’re putting into the bins.
- Recycle RIGHT - Make sure you’re putting the correct items in your recycling bins. Check out the Walking Mountains Recycling Guide to be a responsible recycler. You can also search the free Eagle County Waste Wizard app if you’re unsure of which bin to use!
- Use less - When purchasing, try to think about whether you can use something you already have, buy second-hand (or swap or borrow instead of buying), buy reusable rather than single-use items, or buy in bulk to use less packaging. You can reduce waste at home by opting out of junk mail and going paperless, trading your paper plates to reusable plates, and actually eating those vegetables rather than letting them go bad in the fridge!
Amelia Kovacs is the Sustainability Programs Associate at Walking Mountains Science Center.