Sunday, January 11, 2015

Plastic and Bottles and Paper, Oh My…!

Written for Healthy Indoors Magazine - May, 2014.

Can I just get a little recycling around here?!?! I live in Phoenix, Arizona which is currently the sixth largest city in the United States. We have sprawl, sunshine and some stuff to sort out when it comes to our recycling initiatives and waste diversion goals.

Across the country (and world) cities, people and industry are ramping up their recycling initiatives for a myriad of reasons:
·         To help curb greenhouse gas emissions.
·         To conserve precious land.
·         To earn revenue.
·         To turn waste to energy.
·         Or simply to be good stewards to the earth and because it’s the right thing to do.

Looking at the lifecycle of a product- from natural resource through end of product life- should help make the importance of recycling (and reusing) even more apparent.

* Check out TheStory of Stuff Project for good perspective on this.

Many cities, including Phoenix, have set waste diversion goals. When we throw something “away,” that place “away” is most likely a landfill. A place where we bury our waste, where it then slowly breaks down and contributes to climate change by emitting Methane (CH4) which is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. attributed to human activities. According to the EPA: “Landfills are the third largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States.” So the less we throw “away,” the better…

About a year ago, Phoenix launched its 40 by 20 campaign (40% waste diversion by the year 2020) along with a nice new logo and educational/outreach campaign called Reimagine Phoenix. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, I can reimagine Phoenix in more ways than one, but that’s a story for another day.

Phoenix’s waste diversion rate for fiscal year 2011-2012 was a meager 13% which is far below the national average.

About one year prior to the Phoenix 40 by 20 launch (in early 2012) I discovered something that was very disturbing to me, especially with our embarrassing waste diversion number. I learned there was/is a city ordinance (27-21 Residential collection) that says:

“The City does not provide solid waste collection service to commercial or industrial establishments or to any building with more than 30 multi-family dwelling units, except as provided in subsection A.2 of this section. *1”

In case you’re curious, here’s what subsection A-2 says: “The City will provide solid waste collection service to all dwelling units including: *1 - All buildings with less than five dwelling units, including duplex, triplex and four-plex units, and all buildings with five or more units that have been receiving City solid waste collection continuously since May 30, 1979. Multiple buildings on one lot cannot be aggregated to avoid the provisions of this chapter. *1

Phoenix does provide solid waste collection (along with recycling services) to residential customers, and of course those “less than five dwelling units.”

What I really want to know though, is where the seemingly random ‘continuous service since May 30, 1979’ date came from? I can’t help but picture a group of private solid waste company bigwigs sitting around a table saying “Hey Johnny, throw a date into the hat!”

What the hell?! It’s no wonder Phoenix was at 13% waste diversion rate when the customers who could contribute the largest amounts to the bulk of recycling (and thus revenue for our city) – commercial business and apartment dwellers- were purposefully, and probably strategically, being excluded. “Away” is big money in case you didn’t know. The solid waste industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and Phoenix, with all of our sprawl, has lots of open land to bury it.

Just after this time, I was informed the Phoenix Environmental Quality Commission had made a recommendation to City Council to change the city ordinance banning the city from offering services, including recycling to commercial businesses and multi-family units.

I created an online petition to lay on some community pressure to make this happen.

Well, nearly two years has gone by, it still hasn’t happened, and the only way Phoenix businesses or apartment buildings get recycling is if they pay the private solid waste company to provide it.
I think this is bullshit.

On the flip side of this, I will say I personally know several people in the Phoenix Public Works Department who are fantastic humans doing good work and their hearts are in the right place. What they’ve done so far is a step in the right direction, albeit a tiny baby step when compared to other cities, but we’ll delve into that a little deeper below.

I believe this city ordinance is more of a political power play than anything else, and would love to see the list of political contributions made to City Council member campaigns from private solid waste bigwigs.

So how does the 6th largest city in the United States compare with the 5 bigger cities with regard to waste diversion goals? Let’s start with Phoenix and count down from there.

#6 – Phoenix, Arizona – Population: 1,488,750 (2012 estimate)
Goal: 40% by 2020
2011-2012: 13%

#5 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Population: 1,547,607 (2012 estimate)
Goal: Zero Waste
2011: 77%

#4 – Houston, Texas – Population:  2,160,821 (2012 estimate)
Goal: 75%
2013: 14%

#3 – Chicago, Illinois – Population: 2,714,856 (2012 estimate)
Goal: Zero Waste
2009: 45%

#2 – Los Angeles, California – Population: 3,857,799 (2012 estimate)
Goal: Zero Waste
2012: 76.4%

#1 – New York, New York – Population: 8,336,697 (2012 estimate)
Goal: 30% by 2017 & 75% by 2030

* If anyone has data more current than what I found, please don’t hesitate to share.

So, what I’ve learned from this, is that Phoenix is at the bottom of the barrel with regard to where we are currently with our waste diversion rate, as well as our goals for the future. Especially when you keep digging and looking at cities like the ones outlined here in this article.

I understand the need to set achievable goals, because hey, who likes to fail? But when I see our closest rival in population, Philadelphia, hitting a 77% waste diversion rate in 2011 with a goal of zero, what the hell is our excuse in Phoenix?

Oh yeah. There’s that pesky city ordinance prohibiting us from playing catch up.

And given the fact the city of Phoenix has a $38 million dollar deficit wouldn’t it also make sense for the city to take over and ramp up the recycling for business and multi-family dwellings to save itself money, and even potentially earn some? Other cities have benefited.

So where does your city stack up? Are you a die-hard recycler, or do you not give it much thought? Are there things your city could be doing smarter to reduce waste? I’d love to hear your comments!

Further reading on Zero Waste:

Onward with fingers crossed for a more sustainable Phoenix!

Love and laughter,
-Ms. Champion

“The case for recycling is strong. The bottom line is clear. Recycling requires a trivial amount of our time. Recycling saves money and reduces pollution. Recycling creates more jobs than landfilling or incineration. And a largely ignored but very important consideration, recycling reduces our need to dump our garbage in someone else’s backyard.” – David Morris

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