This article originally ran in the March 2017 issue of the APWA Reporter–a publication for public works professionals in the U.S.
Public works professionals are on the frontlines of the global transition to a circular economy. In the past 20-30 years, your roles have shifted away from just running trash trucks to managing a variety of services, such as recycling, organics collections and reuse drop-off centers, all designed to maximize the value of our discards. Job titles and departments are being rebranded to reflect this important shift, moving away from Solid Waste Managers working in Solid Waste Departments to Waste Diversion Managers working in areas like Austin’s Resource Recovery Department.
But managing resources goes far beyond just changing a department name or job title—it’s about greatly diversifying and expanding services and infrastructure. Fortunately, those challenges are not just on your shoulders.
Increasingly, cities and counties are partnering with private businesses, nonprofits and social enterprises to expand services and infrastructure without expanding municipal staff or budgets. These partnerships range in size from large national players like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores that manage thousands of tons per day to small start-ups servicing a few hundred customers.
These partnerships between municipalities, nonprofits, and social enterprises can help you better serve the community. By handling difficult discard streams like mattresses and electronics, nonprofits and social enterprises increase diversion rates, which in turn prolong the life of landfills and reduce pollution. These partners create local jobs, often for hard-to-employ populations, and bolster local economies by reselling and repairing materials, keeping their value recirculating longer in the economy.
Let’s meet eight model community partners whose efforts are helping to manage an increasingly complex waste stream while providing environmental, economic, and social benefits to your local community.
Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores are nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers found in communities nationwide. These centers are keeping 125,000 tons of used building materials, furniture, and home accessories out of landfills every year. With more than 850 locations, ReStores are boosting local diversion rates, reducing the need for bulky item pickups, creating local infrastructure for construction and household materials, and helping disadvantaged populations both through employment and by providing quality materials at reduced prices.
Momentum Recycling is a glass recycling company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, that is stepping up to fill local gaps in glass recycling infrastructure and services in three ways. First, the company provides curbside glass collection. Second, they clean post-consumer glass so that it can be sold to glass manufacturing facilities. Third, they recycle new material types such as window and plate glass. These types of private industry players augment municipal collection services, increase diversion rates, expand local markets for challenging materials, and boost the local economy by creating jobs and value from waste.
BlueStar Recyclers is a Colorado-based, nonprofit social enterprise that helps to solve two problems: how to provide meaningful jobs for an under-employed population and what to do with electronics waste, one of the fastest-growing segments of waste stream. BlueStar employs people with autism and other disabilities to dismantle electronics, and then markets them responsibly as an e-Stewards certified company. By serving this under-employed population, BlueStar is replacing the need for social services to these populations, a value estimated at $18 per hour worked. BlueStar’s work helps increase diversion rates, reduce pollution, expand services and provide social value back to the community.
Casper Curbside Recycling (CCR) is a small startup company based in Casper, Wyoming, that provides curbside recycling to residents to complement the city-run trash collection. Started by a local couple who saw a service gap and business opportunity, CCR has found a receptive audience and now boasts 200+ residential customers and 40+ businesses. They represent small-scale entrepreneurs who are creating local jobs that bolster the local economy, increase diversion rates and augment existing city services.
Vermont Foodbank started its Fresh Rescue Program in 2014 to collect and redistribute fresh food donations from supermarkets, festivals, other generators. The foodbank is one of a growing number of nonprofits working to reduce hunger and food insecurity while also educating residents and businesses about reducing food waste. The Vermont Foodbank saw a 40 percent increase in donations in 2016, in large part due to Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, which bans all recyclables and food waste from the landfill by 2020. The foodbank’s work decreases waste generation, reduces greenhouse gas emissions from food waste, extends landfill life, and provides valuable community education.
Veteran Compost runs composting facilities and collection routes in the Washington, D.C., metro area. With a passion for turning food scraps into high-quality, marketable compost, the veteran-owned business is also dedicated to providing quality employment opportunities for U.S. veterans. The company is building the needed infrastructure to manage a large portion of the waste stream, educating residents about the valuable nutrients in their waste, and boosting diversion rates.
Eco-Cycle’s Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) is a one-stop shop in Boulder, Colorado for recycling the “hard-to-recycle” materials that make up 10-15% of our discards. CHaRM collects more than two dozen different categories of materials—such as electronics, mattresses, block foam packaging, books, textiles, yoga mats, porcelain sinks, fire extinguishers, and small plastic appliances—for remanufacturing, reuse, and recycling by both local and national partners. Co-founded by Eco-Cycle and the City of Boulder in 2001, the CHaRM served 36,000 customers last year and collected three million pounds of materials. As a valuable piece of Zero Waste infrastructure, the CHaRM helps increase diversion, reduce pollution, and create new opportunities for recycling and reuse by serving as a collection point and incubator for start-up companies, entrepreneurs or organizations that create value by using recycled materials.
Collaborating for Success
Each of these partners is expanding local resource recovery services and infrastructure. Their success helps meet community goals to increase diversion, extend landfill life, reduce pollution, and create local jobs that bolster the local economy. As public works professionals, you can help them succeed by collaborating on projects, being a supporting partner on a funding proposal, promoting their services in mailings and utility bills, or simply meeting regularly to talk about mutual challenges and opportunities. These are the new faces of the solid waste industry. Let’s welcome them to the family with gratitude for all they provide our communities.
Kate Bailey works for Eco-Cycle as the project director of Eco-Cycle Solutions and helps citizens, government staff, and elected officials to implement Zero Waste solutions nationwide.