Naught 'Lanta

A zero-waste convention zone and ambitious recycling plans show Atlanta is serious about landfill diversion.

If you are at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta for WasteExpo, you will be in a "zero-waste zone," the first such zone in the South and one of the first in the country. A zero-waste zone is an area in which residents, businesses and government organizations — whoever happens to live and work in the area — agree to abide by certain rules about handling refuse and recycling to dramatically reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfills.

The move to create zero-waste zone in downtown Atlanta's convention district began in the summer of 2008, when the city lost a major convention to Orlando. The convention organizers picked Orlando after deciding that city was " greener" than Atlanta.

"When Atlanta lost out to Orlando, I thought the [convention] district's food-service operations might be interested in the idea of creating a zero-waste zone," says Holly Elmore, director of Atlanta's zero-waste zone, and founder and executive director of the Green Foodservice Alliance.

Teaming up with Laura Turner Seydel, a local environmental activist and the daughter of Ted Turner, Elmore visited the businesses in the convention district to pitch the idea. Everyone wanted to participate. "We got a 100 percent buy-in for turning the convention district into a zero-waste zone," Elmore says.

The zone, which encompasses the 3.9-million-square-foot Georgia World Congress Center, the 71,250-seat Georgia Dome and the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, was launched in early 2009. The zone is overseen by the Green Foodservice Alliance, Atlanta Recycles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pollution Prevention Assistance Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Businesses in the zone have agreed to:

  • Recycle spent grease from food service operations. Convention center grease re-appears as biodiesel fuel in local fueling stations.
  • Collect food scraps for composting. Atlanta's composting facility is just south of the city.
  • Recycle glass, paper, metal and plastic.

While the zone is not a city of Atlanta program, it is sanctioned by the city, which itself is embarking on an ambitious zero-waste program. While the city's exact goals are still under discussion, they will be ambitious: The first may aim to reduce waste sent to landfills by 75 percent within a few years.

Recycle, Recycle, Recycle

The main tool in a zero-waste program is, of course, recycling. Three years ago, when Waste Expo last visited Atlanta, a contractor was collecting 7,000 tons of residential recycling per year, while disposing of 100,000 tons of residential waste. Currently, Atlanta is collecting 10,000 tons a year of residential recycling in its own trucks under a pilot program organized by two competing vendors.

Several years ago, New York- and Philadelphia-based RecycleBank approached Atlanta with an incentive program designed to promote recycling. "The Recycle Bank idea would put RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on residential recycling carts," says James Swope, public works director of solid waste administration for Atlanta. "Our recycling trucks would read the tags and weigh the materials. Based on the amount of recycling picked up, residents receive points they can spend for coffee, groceries and other products with merchants throughout the city."

As recycling collections rise, Swope continues, the city would dispose of less waste in landfills, reducing tipping and fuel expenses. The savings would free up cash to pay for the recycling program.

At least that was the idea. Landfill tipping fees, however, remain low in the South compared to the North. Tipping fees for Atlanta's trash run about $35 per ton.

"Even though the savings on tipping fees wouldn't pay for the entire program, we liked the idea of an incentivized recycling program," Swope says. "We decided to put out an RFP asking for proposals for recycling programs that built participation through incentives — to see what other ideas might be out there."

RecycleBank submitted its program, and Los Angeles-based Rehrig Pacific Co., a plastic cart and container manufacturer, submitted a variation on the incentive theme. Instead of weighing individual carts, the Rehrig Pacific program would weigh the recycling contributed by neighborhoods. The total would be divided equally among each household and points would be meted out equally to everyone.

"If there are 20 houses and only five participating families, then the participants would have an incentive to talk the program up to their neighbors," Swope says. "Participants would be able to increase the incentives they earned by getting others to chip in."

In both cases, the city would pay for or defray the cost of the program through savings on landfill tipping fees. The city decided to set up a pilot program for each idea. The RecycleBank concept would be tested with 5,000 households, and the Rehrig Pacific concept would be tested with another 5,000 households.

Those tests began last October. Swope says that the city's recycling efforts this year are on track to reach 10,000 tons, 3,000 more than last year. While the pilot programs probably contributed to the increase, Swope said that recycling was up across the city.

While the results of the dueling pilot tests aren't in yet, Atlanta's collection operation within Swope's Office of Solid Waste Services, which is a unit of the Department of Public Works, last year began preparing to collect more recycling by bringing recycling collections in-house. A third-party contractor used to handle the work. But that would have complicated the departmental human resources and equipment assignments had it continued. As Atlanta's new emphasis on recycling produces results, there will be less trash to collect and landfill, but more recyclables. The third-party contractor would have been able to add drivers and equipment, while the city would have had to lay people off and idle equipment.

"Now we can take people and trucks from the solid waste fleet and add them to the recycling fleet," Swope says.

Swope also notes that the collection operation recently added Columbia, Md.-based RouteSmart Technologies route optimization software to its operation. Swope says that the department previously handled routing manually. "With trucks moving from the solid waste side to the recycling side, we need to optimize routes regularly now," he says.

Much of the impetus for this emphasis on recycling is emanating from Atlanta's new Sustainability Division, which reports directly to the Mayor. That division has the ultimate responsibility for the city's zero-waste effort as well as other efforts to reduce the city's overall carbon footprint.

How successful the city will be in its landfill diversion efforts, of course, remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Atlanta officials appear serious about turning their city "green."

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

Related Stories

Atlanta Solid Waste at a Glance

The city of Atlanta is home to about 500,000 people, according to 2006 estimates made by the U.S. Census Bureau, the most current estimates available. The city and the surrounding area compose the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the country, with approximately 5 million residents.

  • The city of Atlanta collects about 150,000 tons of solid waste per year.

  • The city collects its own residential recyclables and gathers approximately 10,000 tons per year under a single-stream collection regimen.

  • Two privately owned transfer stations accept waste collected by the city and send it to landfills in Ball Ground, Ga., and Griffin, Ga., both of which are about 50 miles from the city.

  • Atlanta's solid waste fleet consists of about 150 pieces of equipment, including 70 semi-automated rear loaders used for both waste and recycling collections. A dozen or so mini-packers, knuckle booms, rubber tire loaders, front loaders and six dump trucks provide special collection services. Additional equipment includes roll offs, street sweepers and open body crew cabs. Crane Carrier supplies the truck chasses, while Leach supplies the bodies.