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Balz Improves Waste Diversion in Southwest Ohio

As the solid waste manager with the Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District, Michelle Balz coordinates long-term planning for the district and provides technical assistance to local residents and businesses. 

Balz created the Recycling at Work program, which has already assisted 512 businesses and reached 62,800 employees, and she initiated the Bar and Restaurant Recycling Program, which has assisted 152 businesses. She also recently helped six communities (43,138 households) provide automatic curbside recycling, which achieved a 3,300 ton annual increase in recycling. 

Balz, who was named a recent Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, spoke with Waste360 about Hamilton County’s innovative waste diversion initiatives, her passion for composting, and why she loves working in the waste industry. 

Waste360: What are your major responsibilities as the solid waste manager?

Balz: I oversee our programs and our staff and make sure that we are meeting state-mandated recycling goals and following our solid waste plan. Our mission is to reduce how much waste goes to the landfill. 

We have a lot of programs that help basically anyone who creates waste to reduce that waste. We work with industries, businesses, schools, and residents. We work straight with residents to provide direct programs to them; we have drop-off programs; and we do a lot of outreach and providing programs to the public.

Waste360: What are some of the goals for reducing waste going to the landfill, and what are some of the ways that you have either incentivized or educated people about why these goals are important?

Balz: Ohio has state-mandated waste diversion goals. We tackle these goals in a few different ways. One is to work with communities. We have 48 communities in Hamilton County. We work with all 48 of those communities on their curbside and drop-off recycling programs, and also on their yard waste composting programs. 

We have a very large grant program that I manage that is $900,000 a year. That gives money to those communities to help them offset costs for those programs. That ends up diverting quite a bit of waste from the landfill.

Our other big program that helps with the commercial sector is called Let's Stop Waste. That is a program where we offer technical assistance and supplies to pretty much any kind of business, and even churches and schools. 

Waste360: You helped to create the 15-year solid waste management plan; can you talk about what the plan is, and how it is used?

Balz: We are required to write a 15-year solid waste management plan every five years. With the last plan that we wrote, which started in 2018, we started writing it three years before that. 

We considered questions like: what other best practices are around the country or even in the world? What are the things that we're doing that are most effective; what are the things that are not as effective? What is waste going to look like in the next 15 years? Do we have the capacity to manage it? How are we going to meet the state-mandated goals? 

Waste360: What is something in the plan that you think is really exciting that you either have rolled out or are about to implement?

Balz: I would say one thing would be our organics outreach. One thing we struggle with in Southwest Ohio is that we don't have a Class II composting facility, which is a composting facility that can take food scraps. Because of that lack of infrastructure for composting, we were forced to look higher up in the waste hierarchy, which was a good thing. We've focused on programs to reduce both residential and commercial food waste. 

We've had some really innovative programs to try to reach out to residents and get that message out to them and change their behavior. We did utilize the assets that the NRDC created along with the Ad Council, with the Save the Food campaign.

Last year, we had our For the Love of Food: A Free Foodie Fest, which took place in downtown Cincinnati in a centrally-located park. We had over 1,000 people come. The idea was to have a fun, family-friendly event that involves music and food. There were lots of different stations all about ways to reduce wasted food and the importance of food. It was really a great collaboration with different organizations around the city. 

Waste360: How are you helping residents and businesses dealing with the coronavirus situation in your community? Are there any initiatives that you're doing to make sure people have their recycling and waste management needs under control? 

Balz: Because we don't own or operate any facilities, we haven't had too much interaction in that area, but I've been in contact with the waste operators in the area and our health departments about it. 

We postponed our spring composting seminars for two months. Hopefully, we can still have it in two months. We have kept open our yard trimmings drop-off, and made some rules to try to make sure that people are social distancing, and that nobody is coming too close to anybody else. 

Also, we have been thinking about what programs we could offer people while they're stuck at home. We've been talking about doing some videos on waste reduction and some fun webinars for people who might be looking for something to do.

Waste360: Throughout your career, what is something you are really excited or proud to have been part of implementing?

Balz: I'm really proud to have written a book. I wrote a book on backyard composting called Composting for a New Generation. I think it's really helpful to people who want to start backyard composting, and it has a lot of do-it-yourself projects. I did it all on my own time, with having my job with Hamilton County, and having two small children. It was definitely a proud achievement, and I was really happy with how it turned out.

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