In November, SWACO released new data that shows central Ohio has now surpassed a 50% diversion rate. This means that residents and businesses are keeping over half of the waste they create out of the landfill by recycling, composting and re-using materials. This new rate, up from 45% just a few short years ago, is the highest rate of recycling on record for our communities and is considered to be one of the highest rates in the Midwest. Achieving this new record high rate was accomplished in no small part because of efforts by businesses, schools and governments across Franklin County who are taking waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting seriously. In particular, we applaud the work Otterbein University has done to tackle plastic waste by reducing the number of single-use water bottles sold on campus. Our local school districts including Columbus City Schools and Hilliard along with the cities of Upper Arlington, Westerville and Bexley are accomplishing their goals to divert cafeteria and residential food waste from the landfill and events like the Dublin Irish Festival are doubling their recycling rates.
However, as great as our diversion rate is, the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill still receives over a million tons of material every year, which means that each of us is throwing 4-to-5 pounds of material away every day, so, I know we can do even better. To help with that, SWACO has set a goal to help Franklin County reach 75% diversion by 2032. To help get us there, we need to know what’s in our waste stream that could be recycled, composted or reused or simply has no better use than being safely disposed at the landfill. So, we’ve been involved with a few studies to help us gain that insight.
Insights into Franklin County’s Waste Stream
SWACO’s dual responsibilities of owning the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill and working to reduce the community’s reliance on landfilling, provides us with a unique and holistic look at the entire waste stream in Franklin County.
Because waste streams change over time, as new products and materials are introduced into the marketplace, SWACO periodically studies the materials that are coming to the landfill to gain insights into what residents and businesses throw away. To that end, over the last year, SWACO has been conducting that review, called a Waste Characterization Study. Once during each of the past four seasons, we rerouted a random sample of waste-hauling trucks from the landfill to a designated waste sorting area. Once the trucks emptied their loads, workers manually sorted and weighed the materials by category, such as plastics, yard waste, food waste and cardboard.
We’re still analyzing the data, but initial results show that we’re throwing away a lot of food and cardboard that could have been recycled or composted. In fact, 14.7% of the material was food waste. Put differently, over a million pounds of food waste is entering the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill every single day. That’s a significant amount and it affirms that the Central Ohio Food Waste Initiative we launched last fall is really important. The results also show that 76% of all the material already in the landfill had the potential to be recycled or composted, and 41% of the material being put in the landfill could easily be recycled today. The results support SWACO’s conclusion and efforts to divert even greater materials away from the landfill to reach 75% diversion.
The full results of the study will be available later this year.
The other part of the equation is understanding how frequently and how well people are recycling.
’Feet On The Street’ Initiative Changes Behaviors and Reduces Contamination
Recycling contamination, caused by incorrect or soiled materials placed into the recycling system, increases costs and decreases recovery of recyclable materials. Contamination can threaten the sustainability of the city’s recycling program. SWACO, on behalf of the city of Columbus, received a $40,000 grant to work with The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit that provides direct support to local governments to enhance their recycling programs. The project is being funded by The Recycling Partnership and Ohio EPA as part of a statewide initiative to address recycling stream contamination.
As part of a study recycling containers at 18,000 households in the city of Columbus were audited. We learned that more than 70% of residents participate in recycling, which is great, but 25%, or one in four, put items in their recycling containers that are not accepted in the curbside recycling program, including plastic bags. Carts that contained non-recyclable material were tagged with a note explaining what was wrong, and homeowners were sent “Recycle Right” mailers identifying what is accepted for recycling and what should be avoided. The education efforts paid off. SWACO recorded a 35% reduction in the number of plastic bags put in the curbside container and a 62% decrease in the amount of recyclable material that was collected in plastic bags. We have more work to do, but this was a fantastic start.
“Capture Rate” Study
We’re also conducting a “capture rate” study in two central Ohio communities, Gahanna and Reynoldsburg. Similar to the waste characterization study, this one will determine the composition of the waste content and the percent of recyclable materials that are actually being recycled. We audited the residents’ waste stream before the study, then provided them with 65-gallon wheeled recycling carts as well as education materials on recycling. Then, we audited their waste stream again to see if there were any improvements.
These studies will help us better understand residents behaviors and will inform our decisions about existing and future programs, policies, communications and investments.