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Beyond the bin: Rethinking waste management in a landfill-limited city

Did you know that recycling is the fifth most preferred option for materials management? There are several ways CVWMA encourages managing your potential waste before sending it to the recyclers. Here’s how you can help cut down on items filling up our landfills.

Elizabeth Hall

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When I was a kid, my favorite part of every Saturday was heading to the county dump with my dad. For starters, I got to ride in the front seat of his 1972 baby blue Ford pickup. Perched up high on those vinyl bucket seats, with our dog and trash bags riding behind in the bed, I felt like I could see the whole world through that windshield. And when we got to the landfill, what a visual wonderland! A feast of machinery to sort and pile the different categories of trash. Vehicles with large metal arms that could reach, grab and lift. Rolling pushers to press and condense. And most impressive of all were the towering sorted piles of debris.  Everything, it seemed, was organized and put into its correct pile and place.

Yes, our local landfill was certainly an impressive place to visit as a child. And those sorted piles of waste I observed then are even more needed now. Not all of our trash can be or should be buried in a landfill, and we’ve got to work harder to sort out what can be diverted. Because the fact is, we’re going to run out of landfill space.

Local Landfills

As a Central Virginia Waste Management Authority (CVWMA) board member, I was invited to an Authority retreat this past Fall, where I learned how this shrinking landfill space is affecting our Richmond region. CVWMA Executive Director Kim Hynes briefed board members on the current regional landfill capacity, waste production, and storage shortfall. If we keep disposing at the same rate, we will landfill 10 million additional tons over the next 20 years, further reducing landfill capacity.

As landfill space contracts, haulers could have to travel to facilities outside the region, driving up disposal costs. And as competition within the private market contracts, localities could see fewer options in coming years. According to the Authority’s current regional Solid Waste Management Plan, publicly owned landfills are “non-existent in central Virginia. All residential and commercial waste generated in Central Virginia is disposed of in private facilities.”

Photo: City of Richmond

Most residents may not be aware that mattresses are taking up an increasing amount of space in municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills. Traditional innerspring mattresses can wreak havoc on machines, and newer foam mattresses can’t compress. More of those mattresses are ending up in landfills, as consumers forgo conventional mattress stores — who usually collect the old mattress — for online retailers — who usually leave the disposal of the old mattress up to the customer. The added convenience of mattress shipping seems to be creating more waste, and the problem is getting so profound that state lawmakers have started considering additional disposal regulations in coming years.

Beyond Recycling

Despite being identified primarily as the organization that manages our recycling, CVWMA’s mission takes a much broader scope. The Authority also provides education and organizational collaboration on source reduction and reuse — prior to reaching the recycling stage. The ultimate goal of the Authority is not only to increase the recycling rate, but to simultaneously support less waste production overall. As CVWMA Public Relations Coordinator Julie Buchanan recently told me, “There’s no single preferred solution for all waste, so we need to generate less of it.”

Recycling is the fifth most preferred option for materials management. There are several ways CVWMA encourages managing your potential waste before sending it to the recyclers.

Household Audit

Okay, so we know that recycling isn’t the total solution to our waste and that we need to produce less.  So, how can we do that?

An excellent way to gauge your waste production is to conduct a household trash audit. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that each American throws away 4.9 pounds of trash each day. How much trash do you think you produce? Let’s explore how to conduct an audit to find out…

TIMING: Try to track your trash over the course of a full week or seven days.  Since garbage is collected weekly and recycling every other week in Richmond, starting and finishing your audit based on your collection day is a great way to keep track.

Pick a week without special events or holidays that could lower your trash production. Also, avoid times when you or other household members may be traveling or away from home, or else you risk giving yourself an incomplete picture.

ORGANIZE & TRACK: For this trash audit, you must document your waste as you dispose of it. Keep a tracker near your waste area so that all household members can document what they throw away. Note the item and number by category. At the end of the week, you can review and tally your trash items using your tracker.

Grab this tracker from CVWMA to get started:

REFLECT: Once you’ve documented your household disposables for the week, review your data and ask yourself a few questions based on what you notice:

  • What’s your ratio of landfill trash to recycling or compost?
  • What surprised you about the audit?
  • Which items could be reused or used longer?
  • Could certain items be replaced with ones that last longer?
  • Which items could you have done without?
  • How could you reduce the amount of packaging materials going into the trash?

PreRecycling

One of the simplest ways to cut down on the amount of trash going out of your home is to reduce the number of items coming into it. Before making that next purchase, consider:

  • Do I really need this item?
  • Can it be recycled?
  • Can its packaging be recycled?
  • How long will it last before it needs to be replaced?
  • Can I purchase this item previously used?

INFOGRAPHIC: Think Green Before You Shop

Reuse Retail

Richmond is awash in creative consignment, reuse, and thrift retail stores. Ellwood Thompson’s, Good Foods Grocery, and Eco Inspired allow customers to refill liquid bath and body care products and select food items. Simply bring in any empty plastic or glass bottle for refilling. It could be decades before you’ll need to buy another shampoo bottle!

SCRAP Creative Reuse in Northside is working to keep as many potential art supplies as possible out of local landfills. Their reuse store offers a highly curated inventory of art supplies, STEAM projects, small household items, and decor. SCRAP is able to offer small, in-person classes on reuse art techniques and sewing machine repair and will offer even more workshops when they expand to a larger location on W. Brookland Park Blvd. later this year.

Other Richmond resources, like Nifty Thrifty & Fan-tastic Thrift, carry a variety of useful household items, such as dishes, towels, small appliances, and paper supplies. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is available for those seeking home improvement materials.

There are very few recycling options for textiles, and the vast majority of discarded clothing ends up in landfills or worse. That’s why organizations like Pop Up Stop are working to educate consumers on how they can reduce their clothing’s impact on the waste stream. Nationally, we’re only recycling about 15% of our unwanted textiles — with consignment and reuse serving as the only viable ways that consumers can recycle their clothes today.

Commit to the circular stream by donating to and buying at consignment and reuse stores. Think creatively about where to recycle more household items before sending them to the landfill. And if you haven’t done so yet, help the Richmond City Compost Initiative by contributing your food waste and compostable paper into a community compost bin near you.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles in paid partnership with CVWMA intended to help foster engagement between the authority and the community and help educate residents on ways to more effectively and efficiently participate in the recycling ecosystem.

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Elizabeth is a professional editor, city resident, and volunteer citizen board member. She likes to talk about waste diversion, regional recycling, and reducing trash in metro Richmond.