Q&A: How to turn down the volume of trash

Published 10:28 am Friday, February 26, 2016

By Juanita Teschner

Center for the Environment

The Center for the Environment will host a presentation called “Cut Trash in Half in America: Right Now!” on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at its facility on the Catawba College campus. John Campbell, chairman of the board of WasteZero, will speak at 6:30 p.m. in Room 300.

Joshua Kolling-Perin, director of public engagement at WasteZero, recently answered questions about the problem of trash in the United States and the environmental and economic benefits of waste reduction. Here are the edited results of that exchange.

Q:  First, tell us about WasteZero. What is its mission and how does the company go about accomplishing it?

A:  WasteZero is the nation’s largest waste reduction company. We’re dedicated to the goal of cutting trash in half across the U.S. We work with cities and towns to implement “pay-as-you-throw” (PAYT) programs, which bring tremendous environmental and financial benefits simply by changing how people pay for their trash. Traditionally, people have paid a set amount for their trash services, but with pay-as-you-throw, they pay for trash just like they pay for other utilities: based on how much they use.

Being aware of the cost of their trash encourages people to throw away less and recycle, compost, donate, and reuse more. Our programs reduce waste by an average of 44 percent and double or triple recycling rates.

Q:  What is the scope of the waste problem in the United States? Do you have figures on North Carolina?

A: The problem in the U.S. is the same as the problem in North Carolina: with recycling growth stalling after many years of improvement, we’re creating a massive amount of trash that is damaging the environment and draining the coffers of the cities and towns tasked with disposing of it. In the U.S., we send more than 500 billion pounds of waste to landfills and incinerators each year—much of it recyclable materials or wasted food. That’s enough to cover Delaware in a layer of trash one foot deep, and it costs us around $500 billion to manage it all.

Q:  What are the ramifications of the growing volume of waste?

A:  There are massive financial and environmental costs associated with our waste. Financially, there are disposal costs that in some parts of the country can be higher than $100 per ton, as well as the cost of collection and hauling. Environmentally, garbage is a major source of greenhouse gases, and we miss out on potential energy savings by not having enough recyclable materials available for manufacturers.

Q:  How much of it is recyclable?

A: Each year, Americans send a massive amount of recyclable and compostable waste to landfills and incinerators. For example, the EPA reports that we throw away 25 million tons of paper products, 8 million tons of glass, and 35 million tons of food annually.

Q:  What are the environmental benefits of waste reduction?

A: In terms of greenhouse gases, pay-as-you-throw in Concord, N.H.—which is only slightly larger than Salisbury—brings a benefit equivalent to taking 2,400 cars off the road. The energy savings from Concord’s program are similar to the annual energy production from 12,000 rooftop solar arrays.

Q:  What are the economic benefits?

A: The economic benefits of PAYT can be profound. One example is Worcester, Mass., which has seen a $94.5 million financial impact since its program began in 1993. This is made up of $46.8 million in revenue, $26.3 million in operational savings and $21.4 million in disposal savings.

Q:  What can we do to reduce waste?

A: Being aware that everything we throw away has a cost, even though we may not always see it right away, is the single best way to reduce waste, because it encourages us to throw away only what we need to and divert the rest. That’s the awareness that pay-as-you-throw programs “hard-wire” into communities.

Q:  What has the company found to be the most effective programs?

A:  There is actually an impressive consistency across the communities we work with. Because pay-as-you-throw works by drawing on fundamental truths of behavioral economics—the people respond to incentives—it works well in every community that decides to implement it.

Q:  What have been the results?

A: Some of the results that we’re most proud of in our partner communities include Waterville, Maine, which began PAYT in 2014 and cut its trash by 54 percent; Worcester, Mass., whose recycling rate jumped from 2 percent to 38 percent within one week after beginning a PAYT program in 1993; and Hanson, Mass., which cut its trash by 64 percent after starting a PAYT program in 2014.

Q:  What is your message to citizens who want to be a part of the solution to this growing problem?

A:  Talk to your local leaders. Tell them that you’re tired of paying too much for your trash, and that you want them to bring in a fairer, less expensive, more environmentally beneficial system. Tell your friends and neighbors about how pay-as-you-throw can help them, and encourage them to talk to your community leaders, too. Write letters to the editor and social media posts that explain how pay-as-you-throw can benefit your community.

The Center for the Environment was founded in 1996 to educate the college community and the public about environmental stewardship and sustainability, provide value-added education for students through interaction with thought leaders and opportunities for experiential learning, and bring diverse people and groups together to catalyze sustainable solutions to our most persistent environmental challenges. For information, visit www.CenterForTheEnvironment.org.