Defining Sustainability: What’s Solid Waste Got to Do With It?

Posted on July 16, 2015

Beth Otto is back with the latest on sustainability. She’s filled you in on sustainability efforts in the City of Portland, told you about the day in the life of a sustainability coordinator, and now, she writes about managing solid waste to create a sustainable community.

Defining Sustainability: What’s Solid Waste Got to Do With It?

By Beth OttoLinkedIn and Twitter
Okay, I know your first thought is: yucky solid waste? Don’t worry, in this context, solid waste is not about sewer systems, wastewater treatment, or the need to reuse wastewater.
Instead, I want to focus on garbage which is generally lumped together with recycling and composting. We know that our food and product waste has an environmental impact. It is less clear how we, as local government staff, can work to make our communities more sustainable in managing this waste.
Why do I care about the topic? My interest in the topic was piqued during an eight month stint as a program educator for Washington County Solid Waste and Recycling. My work experience led to a number of lessons learned about solid waste and the impact on sustainability. This lead to me thinking more about how local government can manage solid waste to provide a more sustainable community.
Burying Solid Waste Impacts a Communities Sustainability
It is not the sequestering of our once precious belongings underground. It is the energy and resources used to produce those items and the impact of replacing them with something new. In fact, depending on your perspective, this may be the biggest problem with managing solid waste.
The EPA established a methodology for accounting for greenhouse gas emissions based on a systems approach – that means measuring the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of products based on consumption instead of production. Under this approach more than 40% of our community GHG emissions come from consuming stuff (materials management). Many cities, regions, and states have produced community GHG analyses that have found similar results.
Local Government Can Influence How People Buy, Use, and Dispose of Items
one-less-bag-200The road to sustainable consumption is a long one. Numerous outreach campaigns on the local government level encourage people to purchase products with an eye toward longevity and reuse. A workshop in Eugene, Oregon focused on this topic which resulted in the Eugene Memo. Cat Johnson offers a great overview of the workshop and the subject of sustainable consumption here.
Nonprofit organizations are often leading the way. A couple examples include:

  • Repair PDX organizes repair cafes through free events where volunteer experts are available to fix broken items.
  • iFixit is an online community that offers open source repair manuals for individuals to learn and share tips for fixing electronics.

Community tool libraries and kitchen libraries are popping up across the county. This sharing economy methodology is allowing people to access resources without owning them. This method is a more efficient use of resources and has been extended to car-sharing and office space sharing.
Local governments have direct role in managing the disposal of solid waste. Here are three keys to success.

  • Make room for items being collected. As planners and engineers approve new commercial and multifamily development and redevelopment, local government must manage the space needed for garbage haulers to collect garbage, recycling, and food scraps. The requirements should be part of local code and the development approval process. If your code is outdated, your local government may lack the necessary space. In a space war, garbage will always win.
  • Know your hauling system. Different systems exist for how, when, and which haulers can pick up refuse. Your local government may have an open market where haulers compete for customers. Your local government may regulate through franchise agreements which define service areas for garbage haulers, with rates set by the City or County. Regardless of the system, you need to know your leverage points when regulating garbage haulers.
  • And a leverage point is… This varies around the country. In Oregon, county government is resource. The relationship with garbage haulers is a familiar public-private situation. Local government create a system that makes the hauler provide the best possible outcome for the community, natural systems, and economy.


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