3 Ways Cities Go Green

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Waste management is key in lowering a city's footprint. Phoenix's single-stream recycling program most recently added plastics #1-7 to its list of accepted materials. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

By now you’ve probably seen at least one study ranking America’s “greenest cities.” It could be based on recycling rates, the number of green buildings or even engagement from local residents.

From San Francisco to Charlotte, these cities typically have one thing in common: a strong emphasis on environmental investment and communicating these programs to the public. Here are the key attributes that make up the nation’s most eco-friendly cities.

1. Acing waste management

When it comes to handling waste, recycling is just the tip of the iceberg. Many cities now have separate staff and programs for curbside recycling, compost/yard waste recycling and the collection of hazardous products like paint and batteries. But some will go the extra step.

Did you know in San Francisco, you can recycle food scraps and other organic waste at the curb? In fact, participation is required by city law. Other cities like Chicago and Seattle are beginning to follow suit, and since the EPA estimates organic and yard waste makes up 25 percent of our total solid waste, there’s definitely a demand for other disposal methods.

For other cities, the way to reduce waste is to simply make it illegal to throw things away. Take the case of Charlotte for example. The largest city in North Carolina enforces 15 different state landfill bans.

This includes everything from beverage containers to motor oil and filters to electronics, and did we mention oyster shells? If something is banned from landfills, you can bet that the city and county will do everything they can to make sure that material is recyclable.

An additional option is to change the way that recyclables are prepared for better collection practices. Earlier this year, Minnesota passed a law that all yard waste must be contained in compostable bags.

This means the bags themselves can be added to the compost process and break down. While Minneapolis has until 2013 to comply with the law, its Twin Cities-neighbor St. Paul already enforces it for any yard waste collection.

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2. Efficient public transportation

In case you didn’t already know, cars have a high environmental footprint. We’re talking carbon emissions, air pollution and non-renewable energy being pumped at the gas station.

Meanwhile, public transportation helps keep cars off the road, and many times these buses and trains are powered by renewable energy. Some are so recognized that we know them by name (e.g. BART and the L train), but other cities are doing their part to promote riding the rails.

Honolulu's TheBus system has also been awarded America's Best Transit System twice by the American Public Transportation Association. Photo: Flickr/duluoz cats

In Orlando, the Lymmo bus line offers transportation all over downtown…for free. It runs every day from City Hall to the Centroplex with 11 spots in between, serving both commuters and those who want to enjoy downtown nightlife.

Another way to measure public transportation effectiveness is how often it is utilized. According to 2005 figures from the Federal Transit Administration, New York is by far the leader with 9.6 percent public use.

As for the city came in at No. 3?

That would be Honolulu, which despite still relying on only a bus system has 3.7 percent public use. Its TheBus system has also been awarded America’s Best Transit System twice by the American Public Transportation Association.

According to the most recent State of the Union, public transportation is no longer just an inner-city phenomenon. The U.S. is spending $8 billion to improve high-speed trains in 31 states and three Canadian cities, and more than 25 percent of that money will go to California.

So, those looking to travel between the three largest metro areas of the Golden State (San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles and San Diego) can do so at up to 220 miles per hour. It should also reduce airline and highway travel, and trains have the lowest carbon footprint of all transportation for long trips.

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3. Green-collar job availability

One indirect way to green up a city is to increase the availability of green-collar jobs, with many focusing on energy efficiency that can be applied locally. Plus, an eco-minded company is more likely to enforce eco-friendly policies, such as promoting conservation.

So, where are the green jobs located? In Mother Nature Network’s recently released top 10, three were in California, but a handful of those listed may come as a surprise.

This includes Detroit, where the electric car is transforming the auto industry and clean energy jobs are abundant. Another listed city was Houston, which may have one of the lowest national recycling rates but it’s the third highest green job market, according to Forbes.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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