Two years ago I moved to Edmonton, Canada. Edmonton is the capital of the province of Alberta and, accurate or not, has a reputation for being cold and bleak, a city filled with oilfield workers, its coffers filled from deep oil wells. It was an abrupt change from the lush BC town I had lived in for ten years and the adjustment came with more than a bit of homesickness on my part. My older brother is (inexplicably) a lifelong Edmonton-lover and I remember vividly the day he embarked on a one-man Edmonton tourism campaign, determined to win me over to this city. One of the first things he mentioned was how Edmonton was considered a national leader in waste management, and initially I laughed. This? This was his biggest boast? Waste management?
When I stopped laughing, though, I did some research. Turns out he’s right. Edmonton diverts 60% of waste from its landfills, recycles more than 1000 cubic tonnes of e-waste each and every month and even washes and re-uses 98% of the sand it uses on icy roads during its prolonged winter, saving the city $4.5 million.
It got me thinking, and trust me, waste management is not something I spend a great deal of time thinking about. But once you get into it, it’s actually kind of fascinating. (Really.) Most of us forget about where our waste goes the second the trash bag hits the curb but I think it’s about time someone shone a spotlight on this neglected topic.
Waste management around the globe
I’ve gathered together a list of fascinating, innovative and eco-friendly waste management strategies being taken on by cities all over the globe. It’s amazing to see how each city adapts its strengths to tackle this issue. Check it out.
Mexico City, Mexico
The Bordo Poniente dump, just outside Mexico City, used to be one of the world’s largest landfill sites, covering 370 hectares and containing 70 million tons of garbage. It was closed in 2011 and the city committed to a full, environmentally-appropriate landfill site closure process. In the years leading up to its closure, the city implemented comprehensive collection programs for recycling and organic waste in order to drastically reduce the need for new landfill space. Since being shut down, the Bordo Poniente landfill has been putting the off-gassing from that 70 million tons of garbage to good use, by building a biogas electricity plant. Experts estimate that the city will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.4 to 2 million tonnes during the first year of biogas utilization alone.
The City of Edinburgh, Scotland, is committing to a zero-waste strategy of waste management, pledging to divert all but 5% of landfill waste to recycling or composting facilities. In order to do so, the city is building two new facilities, an anaerobic digestion plant to produce energy from food waste, and a combined heat and power plant to recover energy from residual waste.
In 2014, Washington, D.C. unanimously passed a bill banning the use of styrofoam containers for food establishments, mandating that all takeout containers be recyclable or disposable. This was part of the city’s waste modernization bill which also contains a goal of diverting 80% of their total landfill waste to reuse, recycling, or composting.
In India, engineers are adopting a method of taking plastic garbage — the kind that litters the country, chip bags, chocolate bar wrappers, plastic bags, bottles, lids, etc. — and shredding them to be added as a substitute for bitumen in road construction. This method takes a waste product (of which there seems to be a never-ending supply) and reinvents it as a useful substitute in construction. And, it is simple and cost-effective to boot!
New York, New York
With a population of over 8 million, waste management in New York City has been a struggle for many years but they’ve jumped aboard the zero waste game plan with ambitious goals. According to their waste management report, “New York City’s Solid Waste Management Plan expects to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 34,000 tons while diverting 2,000 tons of waste per day from land-based solid waste transfer stations in Brooklyn and Queens to marine transfer stations.” This reduction in waste, alongside the emissions reduction plan, represents an immensely positive change in the city that never sleeps.
If you do a little digging, you’ll find cities in every country in the world working toward diverting 50, 60, 80 or even 95% of their waste by using more sustainable options like recycling or composting. They’re achieving this goal through innovation, cooperation, and by drastically re-imagining the way we view our world.
One aspect of zero waste that jumped out at me while researching these cities was that each one experienced growing pains. At no time was the transition seamless, as is to be expected when you’re engaging the cooperation of potentially millions of people toward a common goal. Each city developed plans, implemented them, received feedback (sometimes frustrated, angry feedback) and then fine-tuned their processes until they began running smoothly. This is, I find, how it works on a personal level, too. Environmental change is not a one-and-done flick of the switch, it’s a process. Ever-evolving, ever-shifting, dynamic and responsive.
The goal of zero waste seems lofty, but as these cities prove, we are getting closer and closer to it every single day. We’ve seen before that it can be possible on an individual level (as proved by Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer and the like) and a commercial level, too (this zero-waste newspaper facility, for example).
So if they can do it, why not municipalities, too?
Feature image credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock