Cities of Change

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As the zero-waste trend continues to grow, U.S. cities are in a race to achieve the waste-free title. Countries around the world are taking the extra step to become more eco-friendly, down to the very last piece of trash.

For example, on June 21, the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft Company and Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company signed a cooperative agreement for a strategic partnership, announcing that Masdar City will soon become the first carbon-neutral, waste-free city in the world. A tall order, but a huge step forward.

Photo: Nationalgeographic.com

Perhaps one of the greenest cities in the U.S., San Francisco has created strict laws to combat its waste and pollution. Photo: Nationalgeographic.com

We’ve been exploring the recycling and waste management advancements of other countries in our Trash Planet series, but how does the U.S. measure up?

Better than you may think. The U.S.’s overall recycling rate has increased from 8 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2001. Also, the Obama administration has made some moves that favor the environment. Some cities are also leading by example and have made some interesting moves and big green initiatives including:

  • Curbside composting
  • Xeriscaping (water-conserving landscaping)
  • Green infrastructure and stormwater runoff
  • Urban planning to minimize driving

While we’re making strides as country, there are some cities that stand out as innovators and serve as models for the U.S.’s green future.

San Francisco, Calif.

There is always environmental news about the city of San Francisco, and it is well deserved. Not only has the city pledged to be zero waste by 2020, but San Francisco also boasts the highest recycling rate in the nation – a whopping 72 percent.

This is partly due to San Francisco’s stringent recycling and composting law. The new law will make recycling and composting mandatory. If recyclable or compostable items are found in the garbage bins, the resident will be warned on the first offense. Repeat offenders will be issued fines of $100 for small businesses and single-family homes and up to $1,000 for large businesses and multi-unit buildings.

“Clearly, mandatory recycling measures pay off,” says San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. “If we’re going to reach a recycling rate of 75 percent in 2010 and zero waste in 2020, we need to make sure that residents and businesses are taking full advantage of our composting and recycling programs.”

But recycling initiatives are just part of San Francisco’s environmental efforts. The city has also made laws to further clean energy and reduce its carbon footprint. These initiatives include:

  • Clean Technology
  • Biodiesel Access Task Force
  • Resource Efficient Building Task Force
  • Urban Environmental Accords
  • Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force

Portland, Ore.

Popular Science lists Portland as the No. 1 greenest city in the U.S., Portland gets half its power from renewable sources, a quarter of the workforce commutes by bike, carpool or public transportation, and 35 of its buildings have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Portland’s innovative landscape is an exceptional example of what green could look like in the future. The city is equipped with EV charging stations, more than 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes and also offers do-it-yourself sustainability classes.

According to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, the state has been working towards a more sustainable landscape for the past 40 years.

The state also has several other organizations dedicated to advancing specific sustainability efforts including the City-Wide Green Team, a group of Portland citizens dedicated to improving the city’s environment. The group holds neighborhood clean-ups and community gardens.

“Sustainability means meeting our needs without compromising our children’s ability to thrive,” Mayor Sam Adams said in January. “It means economic, social and environmental justice. Portland is the ideal starting place for this nation to get serious about environmental sustainability. We can show what’s possible, setting an example the rest of the world can follow. And we can prove sustainability pays off.”

Photo: Teambuildinginc.com

Atlanta has pledged to become a “Zero Waste Zone” as it amps up its recycling and waste-reduction efforts. Photo: Teambuildinginc.com

Atlanta, Ga.

Major efforts are not just happening on the West coast. While Atlanta is not the greenest city yet, it has announced some pretty big goals for the future.

In February, Downtown Atlanta announced its plan to become the Southeast’s first Zero Waste Zone, with plans to expand the program across the state in the near future.

According to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Georgians dispose of more than 17 million tons of solid waste per year. Recoverable products, including paper, organics and plastics, make up 82 percent of the recyclable materials disposed of in the landfills. With the Zero Waste Zone project, these reusable products will be recycled.

While it’s a tall order, the project is already underway. Its first stop was the downtown Atlanta convention district, where hundreds of thousands tons of waste are sent to landfills.

Furthermore, some of Atlanta’s major downtown restaurants and hotels have partnered with D.C.-based EnviRelations to provide food waste for composting and donation to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Thirty-four tons of organic material is diverted from landfills each month and used grease is converted into biofuel.

Austin, Texas

While Austin’s current recycling rate is only 30 percent, the city has outlined huge plans to dramatically restructure its waste system.

At the first of year, Austin became the only city in the state of Texas with a goal to go zero waste. The Austin City Council approved a resolution to adopt the Zero Waste Strategic Plan, eliminating trash from area landfills by 2040.

Currently, Austin looses an estimated $40 million annually by sending recyclable or reusable materials to landfills. According to the revised plan, the Zero Waste design principle will goes beyond recycling and will first focusing on reducing waste and reusing products, composting and recycling the rest.

While Austin has a long way to go, the city has already distributed new, 90-gallon recycling carts, making bulk recycling easier for residents. Also, Austin Energy, the country’s largest provider of renewable energy, is taking part in the city’s ambitious goal to become carbon-neutral by 2020.

Austin’s current green space included 206 parks, 12 nature preserves, 26 greenbelts and more than 50 miles of trails.

Seattle, Wash.

The West Coast gem has just announced its record-breaking recycling rate, a whopping 50 percent. What’s more amazing? This is the fifth year that Seattle has continually raised its recycling rate, up 1.8 percent from 2007.

“The credit for this milestone really belongs to everyone in Seattle for taking small, simple steps every day,” said Mayor Nickels. “People have taken recycling to heart. It’s part of our values, and what makes Seattle a great place.”

The recycling rate in Seattle is expected to continue increasing for years to come as the city just established a new residential service this year. The new curbside program will accept everything from food scraps (including meat, fish and dairy) to electronics.

Food and yard waste will now be accepted through a high-tech facility where an advanced process breaks down harmful bacteria and chemicals, turning the waste into compost for local parks and gardens.

But recycling isn’t the only big move Seattle is making. In August, the city will also vote on a 20 cent plastic bag fee to encourage the usage of cloth bags. Also, the city has made an incentive program to encourage residents to install solar panels and educate consumers about energy usage.