Wednesday, 20 March 2013

US impressions. Recycling updates in California

Well, it's 5am Californian time and I've realised that the only chance of keeping this blog up-to-date is to wake up this early.  I guess it's not too much of a hardship though because the whole jetlag thing that I'm experiencing for the first time is making sure I bob in and out of sleep at the end of the working day until the early hours of the morning.  I'm sure I'll get used to it by the end of the week, in time for the Friday night party!

But even yesterday's conference the NCRA Recycling Update  felt much like a party.  It was certainly much more relaxed than any conference that I've attended before. Still as professional, with representatives from federal and state departments, waste management companies, independent consultants etc, yet it felt like it was a large group of old friends getting together for a catch up.  As it turned out, many of the the people in the room were old friends, who have strived together over the last 20 years.  I loved the atmosphere of in-jokes and celebratory applauses during the event yesterday as well as the fact that attendees were encouraged to bring their own reusable coffee cups.

But what did I learn? 

Perhaps the fact that shouted most loudly yesterday was that San Francisco, with just 20% of its waste going to landfill is most definitely a shining light in the US recycling sector, with the rest of the US landfill rates currently at 54%.  And as for the value of wasted packaging materials in the US, that currently stands at a whopping $11,402,020,357.

 (Source: As you Sow)

Elsewhere, according to food waste awareness project Food Shift, $165 billion worth of wasted food is thrown out each year, with the US spending $750 million on its disposal.

These are huge problems and naturally very similar to those that we have to tackle in the UK.  And just like us, there is much strategising to resolve the issues at all levels of the waste hierarchy, with particular pushes to introduce single use bag bans/taxes, development of Anaerobic Digestion plants, managing construction & demolition waste, pushing for extended producer responsibility, standardising packaging labelling, developing reuse opportunities and pushing food waste further up the hierarchy.

So for anyone sat in the UK, pondering the impact of their own actions and thinking 'what's the point of me doing something, when we look at how much America wastes', from what I've seen so far my message is 'it's time to wake up and smell the coffee' because this huge continent is busying itself with solutions and action plans to sort it out.  It is also leading the way with zero waste ambitions while adopting good practice that's emerging from other countries too.

It would take me all week to feature all of the great things that came out of yesterday's conference, so being in no position to do that, I'm going to leave you with just a few of the highlights and links for you to ponder.

1.  Even when food waste collections are brought into place, examples from Portland and San Francisco show that home composting is still very much encouraged and adopted.  Stats from Portland reveal that 50% of Portlanders still home compost.

2. Across the States, there is still much work to do in improving the recycling infrastructure, as many residents still don't have access to easy recycling facilities.

3. Reuse is a growth industry.  Oregon's St Vincent de Paul provides a great example of how a thrift store, which once contributed much of its donations to landfill, now has a diversion rate of 95%.  The charity's Terry McDonald gave examples that despite competition from sites such as Amazon, its book retail charity brings sales of $1.2b per year.  In recent years, it has also found opportunities in the mattress sector, both in rebuilding mattresses for reuse and reselling components for recycling.  It imports dark oak furniture from Europe, which has a better resale value here, whereas in places such as the UK and Belgium such furniture could have been scrapped for wood recycling/landfill/recovery.  Other examples of innovative processing include creating tumbled glass for reselling to the floristry and creative industries, remelting candle wax to create fire-bricks and collecting single shoes to help amputees.

4. A great scheme that is piloting the reuse of what are normally defined as Hazardous Waste Products, is Tehama County's REAP project (Reuse of Available Products), which redistributes cleaning products, stains, paints, polishes, automotive fluids and more to the public free of charge.  More information can be found about it here.

5. There is still much to do with overcoming confusing packaging labelling, especially as the US has similar problems to the UK where the recycling facilities vary across counties and states.  However, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is trying to consolidate and standardise messages to help consumers. The website shows how new labelling has been developed, following the lead of the UK's own On Pack Recycling Label (OPRL).  There is also a list of organisations that are now adopting it.

6. Food Shift's Dana Frasz is a leading light in the area of food waste, campaigning to push food waste management further up the hiearchy, so that it is distributed to the hungry way before it ever becomes treated as a waste material and using it as an opportunity for job creation.  More details can be found at

7. Eric Lombardi of Eco-cycle and Dr Jeff Morris of Sound Resource Management Group presented one of their latest analytical models comparing MBT (which they've redefined as MRTB - Mechanical Recovery Biological Treatment) Landfill and Energy from Waste solutions, in relation to treating differing percentages of residual/solid waste.  Their tools model data against Climate Change impacts, Acidification, Respitory Diseases, Ecotoxity and much more. Further information about this kind of work can be found at

I feel guilty about leaving so much out, but as soon as links to the presentations are available, I will include them here.  Meanwhile, here's a link to the movers and shakers who featured in yesterday's jam-packed programme.

So with yesterday's California/US focus, today's conference moves towards the international scene, hosted by the Zero Waste International Alliance, where we look forward to hearing some of the challenges, opportunities and fantastic initiatives from around the rest of the world.

Please excuse me, while I head for breakfast, grab some much-needed coffee and get cracking on another busy day.  I promise, I will be back to respond to the emails, comments and tweets later.


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