Guest Editorial: Waste Diversion—Do We Need Carrots or Sticks? Or Technology?

Zero waste…75% recycling…90% diversion…mandatory food waste recycling—some communities across the United States are setting aggressive waste diversion goals. New York City has adopted a zero waste-to-landfill goal by 2030. Florida has adopted a statewide recycling goal of 75% by 2020. Portland, OR, has a goal to reduce waste and raise the recovery rate to 90% by 2030. Connecticut has passed a law requiring certain commercial food waste generators to recycle food waste, which has been in effect since 2014.

Beyond aggressive diversional goals, some communities have risen to the challenge and are reporting high diversion rates. San Francisco, CA, reported an 80% diversion rate in 2012. Portland reported a 70% diversion rate in 2012. On the other side of the country, Pinellas County, FL, reported an 89% recycling rate in 2015. Recycling and diversion rates, however, are not always calculated the same, so these are not necessarily apples-to-apples comparisons.

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While there are some examples of high diversion rates, the state of waste diversion across the US is not rosy. Earlier this year, EPA published the latest Materials and Waste Management: Facts and Figures report. In that document, EPA estimated the 2014 US diversion rate was 34.6%. While this is a modest gain from the 2010 estimate of 34.0%, it shows that as a nation we have a long way to go if we want to achieve significant waste diversion.

Not everyone sees the need to strive for high diversion goals. “Why Recycle? What problem are we solving?” There is no nationwide landfill capacity crisis. Concerns related to landfill disposal and greenhouse gases sometimes fall on deaf ears. Eyes glaze over during a discussion of the circular economy.

But for those of us committed to developing sustainable integrated solid waste management systems, we seek to recover as much resources as we can from our waste. But how do we achieve higher waste diversion rates? Does waste diversion need to happen upstream or downstream? Does waste diversion require source separation or do we rely on technology to divert waste from landfill disposal?

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The simple answer is “it depends.” Upstream diversion, i.e., source separation, requires behavior change. From residents. From businesses. From government. From institutions. From industry. Downstream recycling does not necessarily require behavior change.

As a society, we are disconnected from our waste disposal. In many respects, this is a mark of progress. We don’t have waste in our streets and waterways. Disease related to waste exposure is no longer something we worry about. We throw things “away” and most people don’t know where “away” is. Out-of-sight is out-of-mind.

What therefore motivates us as humans? In school, some of us learned about the economic theory called “the tragedy of the commons.” In essence, this theory holds that individuals will act in their own self-interest and against the common good when it comes to resources, ultimately depleting a community’s resources through their collection actions. This would suggest that many people may not be motivated to change their behavior with respect to waste diversion for the sake of “doing the right thing'”

So if acting for the benefit of the common good is not a strong motivator, what tools can we use to change behavior? Quite simply, we can use carrots and sticks.

Carrots motivate people by rewarding behavior. Sticks provide fear of punishment for failure to comply with a community’s rules or regulations.

In Europe, where generally countries have achieved higher diversion rates than the US, both carrots and sticks are used. Carrots often come in the form of economic incentives. Pay-as-you-throw systems are widely adopted, along with green taxes and system economics that make recycling more economically viable.

Sticks in Europe come in the form of extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, landfill disposal bans, and landfill disposal taxes. Twenty-five European Union (EU) member countries have implemented EPR in national packaging waste policies. An EU directive makes it unlawful to dispose of unprocessed municipal solid waste in a landfill. The UK has implemented an 80-pounds (sterling)-per-ton (approximately $100) tax on waste disposed in landfills since 2014. Other EU countries have also implemented landfill taxes, and these taxes actually help create the economic incentives for recycling mentioned above.

In the US, we can find examples of these carrots and sticks being used to motivate waste diversion behavior. Recycling incentive programs such as Recyclelbank or the City of Grand Rapids’ My GRPoints provide coupons and discounts at local and national stores. Cities like Fort Worth, TX, have implemented pay-as-you-throw programs. Some communities are incentivizing business recycling by reducing fees for those that demonstrate high recycling levels. Some communities have adopted bans on the disposal of certain materials such as plastic bags and organics.

Motiving behavior through carrots or sticks, however, takes political will. It’s policy driven. And many elected officials don’t believe in regulating waste diversion behavior, or as in the example of the City Manager mentioned earlier, see a justifiable reason to take such actions.

If upstream waste diversion cannot be accomplished, there is another approach communities can use to achieve high waste diversion: downstream diversion using technology such as mixed waste processing. Mixed waste processing might be a viable way to recover additional resources from waste. From additional recyclables recovery, to organics that may be suitable for anaerobic digestion, to refuse derived fuel production, mixed waste processing offers possible solutions to recovering materials otherwise destined for landfill disposal.

It’s clear that communities who want to achieve aggressive waste diversion have tools at their disposal to affect upstream or downstream diversion. In the end, those communities need to decide for themselves if they want to use policy such as carrots and sticks, or technology to achieve their goals. Or, what may result in the highest waste diversion, some combination of all three. MSW_bug_web

  • Syed Hasan.

    What is the standard practice to calculate Recycling and Diversion rates ? As you mentioned not everyone is using the same methodology.
    Further, as you stated that “An EU directive makes it unlawful to dispose of unprocessed municipal solid waste in a landfill”. Is the processed or treated municipal waste sent to the landfill is counted as “Landfilled” or “Diverted” ?
    The definition of diversion has to be standardized in order to compare Apple to Apple.


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