April 22 marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. This event has waxed and waned since its launching in 1970, but it is still celebrated every year as a reminder that a clean environment doesn't happen on its own. That first Earth Day was a response to the state of our environment in the 1960’s. After two and a half decades of soaring post war prosperity, our air and our rivers were filthy. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland had even caught fire. That’s quite a trick when you think about it.
I was at the University of Colorado in Boulder then. I remember the rally on campus and some of the teach-ins. Most of all, I remember that recycling was often mentioned during the various events. Recycling resonated with the public. Individuals couldn’t do much about smog and burning rivers, but we could recycle and feel like we were doing something, however minor, to save the Earth.
Forty-five years later, we have made tremendous progress in cleaning up our environment. Our air is cleaner, our rivers aren’t catching on fire. Recycling has been transformed. But the job is far from finished.
I celebrated Earth Day in 2015 as a panelist at the District of Columbia Department of the Environment’s Zero Waste Summit. The Summit was held to discuss ways to achieve the ambitious goals in the city’s new recycling law. The event was an exciting opportunity because the recycling challenges Washington faces are a microcosm of the obstacles the nation is dealing with collectively.
These challenges are two-fold. More than half of Washington’s population lives in apartments or condos. Unlike in single family housing, where recycling is pretty much the norm, I have yet to find any city—in this country or elsewhere—that has figured out how to achieve equally high levels of recycling in multi-family housing. The anonymity of apartment buildings is a powerful barrier to the social norm of recycling.
Organics, especially food waste, present the other challenge. The recovery rates on these materials are in the low single digits nationally. As a result, pushing on organics offers the best chance for significant increases in our recycling rate. But we cannot underestimate how long it will take to achieve success.
During the summit, the food waste panel came first. My favorite panelist hailed from the DC Central Kitchen. He enthusiastically described how the Kitchen collects edible food, prepares 10,000 meals a day and trains unemployed adults in culinary careers. What a great success story.
But what do we do with the food that has to be thrown away? DC’s intensely urban nature poses daunting challenges that are worsened because the mid-Atlantic area has a limited number of food waste composting or anaerobic digestion facilities.
And that’s where the second panel fit in. We looked at successful recycling strategies, focusing specifically on Seattle and Edmonton, Alberta, two cities the same size as DC. Edmonton is noteworthy for its willingness to experiment. Its food waste strategy involves building a waste-to-biofuels plant. Seattle, which expects to achieve a 70 percent recovery rate in 2023, has been working on recycling for more than two decades, slowly and carefully setting realistic goals and steadily expanding its program. Recently it began collecting food waste at the curbside for composting. Multi-family housing remains a challenge for both cities but they are both looking at how to improve in that area.
In 2020 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. My goal is to be on a panel celebrating America’s highest ever recycling rate.
Chaz Miller is director policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.