With an ever-increasing number of landfills nearing or already at capacity, particularly those that serve densely populated urban areas, more and more municipalities are looking for creative and effective ways to divert waste from their landfills. To help municipalities with this goal, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) recently produced a helpful guide to municipal waste diversion. Read on for an overview of the guide’s key highlights and takeaways.
What is waste diversion?
In broad terms, waste diversion is any action or practice that prevents garbage from ending up in landfills or incinerators. Common actions that direct garbage away from landfills include recycling, composting, and reuse, or other technology-supported practices like gas production through anaerobic digestion.
Why is waste diversion important?
Waste diversion is becoming an increasingly important part of effective and sustainable municipal waste management, and it is associated with a host of benefits, including the following:
Economic benefits—When a community diverts more waste from landfills, fewer landfills are needed to serve the municipality, which translates into cost savings on the creation of new landfills or on the transportation of waste to landfills located farther away. Diversion also creates more jobs than landfilling. According to the FCM, recycling 14,000 tons of waste creates nine jobs, and composting the same amount of waste creates seven jobs, but landfilling that waste creates only one job.
Environmental benefits—When communities recycle or reuse waste as opposed to landfilling it, they conserve valuable resources, and less energy is needed to manufacture new products from recycled (rather than virgin) materials. Waste diversion also cuts down on the amount of greenhouse gases that landfills and incinerators produce, and it frees up more land for agricultural or other natural uses.
Social benefits—Landfills have long been an issue for residents of nearby communities. Reduced landfill usage helps to improve the quality of life for people living in close proximity by reducing pollutants, odors, and litter, and thus improving health.
What are some of the challenges of waste diversion?
Despite its many benefits, waste diversion is not without challenges. One of the biggest barriers to waste diversion for some municipalities is the often higher cost of diversion compared with landfilling—specifically, the upfront investment that is typically needed to cover capital and operating costs for diversion programs, equipment, and facilities. Other common barriers include a simple lack of knowledge about the need to implement waste diversion efforts, or hesitation on the part of municipalities to adopt new waste management policies that residents might perceive negatively. It may be especially difficult for municipalities to drive waste diversion initiatives in situations where lack of available landfill space is not an immediate problem.
What are the keys to successful waste diversion for municipalities?
The FCM has identified the following four important keys to success for municipal waste diversion programs and efforts:
Partnerships and collaboration
The more stakeholders buy in to diversion programs, the more successful those programs are likely to be. Municipalities can work to establish partnerships with a wide variety of players, including local citizens and residents, local community groups and organizations, educational institutions, the private sector, and provincial or state governments. All of these broad collaborative efforts can be a big help in boosting participation and creating effective diversion solutions.
Convenience lies at the heart of any successful waste diversion program. In providing multiple options for reuse, recycling, and composting, municipalities can drive greater participation rates by showing single-family households, multifamily buildings, and institutional and commercial entities that waste diversion is not only beneficial, it’s easy. Curbside recycling collection, household organics collection, options for diverting leaf and yard waste, and drop-off facilities for both domestic and commercial users are all measures that can help municipalities achieve higher diversion rates. These efforts have the option of being managed either by the municipality, the private sector, a public-private partnership, or even by the province or state.
Policy and legislation
No waste diversion program will be successful without adequate legislative measures to support it. Key municipal bylaws and policies that can help enforce waste diversion practices include limiting the amount of waste that residents may set out each week, reducing garbage collection from a weekly to a biweekly schedule, and placing a landfill ban on recyclable or compostable materials. Some municipalities find that having formal waste diversion targets can also help encourage buy-in from community members and motivate change. Economic incentives for choosing diversion over disposal, such as pay-as-you-throw programs, often prove effective as well.
Education and promotion
Often, people want to participate effectively in waste diversion programs, but they need to be shown how to do it. That’s why education and awareness building are vital elements of any waste diversion strategy. Ongoing public education programs and continuing feedback to residents, whether in the form of visits to households or targeted promotional campaigns, can help ensure that everyone understands the available diversion options as well as the impacts and consequences of their waste management choices.