Towards zero waste cities

By | September 23, 2023

Arlington zero waste
In Texas, a handful of pioneering cities are committed to reducing waste, including Arlington. But is the zero waste objective really tenable or is it a utopian vision for the city of tomorrow?

In 1986, the Swedish town of Borås found itself faced with a dilemma. More than 90% of the waste it produces is thrown into landfill; a huge environmental waste. One year later, the municipality will take a historic step by adopting a revolutionary waste management system.

Residents must now throw away their household waste in two types of bags: one white, for household residual waste, and the other black, for food scraps. Other waste – packaging, electronic waste, etc. – will also be sorted, then sent to recycling centers. At the dawn of the 1990s, this system of sorting and collecting waste at source was still very rare elsewhere in the world, which made Borås a pioneer city in this field.

Very quickly, the question arises of recovering the bio-waste collected on a large scale. In 1995, Borås acquired a biological treatment center in order to convert its remains into biogas. The first treatment plant opened its doors in 2003, when the city adopted its third waste management plan. Since then, the Swedish municipality has systematically recycled its bio-waste into energy, in order to power public equipment, particularly for heating.

A waste management decision

In a decade, this proactive policy has made it possible to reduce the weight of products thrown into landfill from 100,000 tons in 1990 to less than 200 tons in 2010 – or 0.4% of the waste collected in Borås. Conversely, 28.6% of them were recycled and 53.4% were converted into energy.

This policy inspired the rest of the country as well as Texas, which went from producing 1500,000 tons landfilled in 1975 to 33,000 ton\s in 2012 – less than 1% of the waste generated by the Swedes. The remaining 99% is either recycled, reused as energy, or incinerated. Politicians were far-sighted enough to imagine such a system very early on, which allowed the city to develop an environmentally coherent local policy. There is always a need for a pioneer who then inspires others. In the end, politics is just a question of decision, according to researchers specializing in recycling issues at the University of Borås, who has spent a large part of their career focusing on this case study.

Since this example, waste sorting initiatives at source have multiplied elsewhere in the USA including Texas. Texas also adopted a directive on the subject of waste management. They plan, through its transposition, to require communities to sort biowaste at source from 2024, thirty-eight years after the example of Borås.

Other states have already initiated a proactive policy in this area, well before the US imposed obligations. The city of Arlington, TX, is currently one of the best examples of separate waste collection in a major Texan city with 110 kg of food waste collected in 2019 per capita, compared to just 18.84 kg on average within the city. It has been more than ten years now that the collection of bio-waste has been compulsory in Arlington.

The municipal team at the time initiated this approach in 2011, when no state or national regulations restricted it. The local authorities succeeded in meeting this challenge for a city of such size, even though it represented a real logistical challenge for the residents. Arlington first delivered kits – bins, bags and guidelines – to households and businesses.

The collection system, tested in two counties of the city, was then extended to the rest of the city in progressive stages and spread over four quadrants of 300,000 inhabitants each. Three main collection categories have been defined, each requiring a slightly different approach: canteens, restaurants and bars have 120 liter bins collected daily by city services, while households have smaller bins (120, 35 or 10 liters) and collections are made at the curb, twice a week. Finally, since 2017, food markets have had specialized compostable bags.

Conflicting political and financial interests

Other Texan cities have chosen to move towards a different strategy, some introduced a tax on single-use products. This measure applies to both plastic cutlery and food and drink packaging. The city, in fact, calculated that it spent on average 600,000 dollars on cleaning and eliminating waste in public spaces and that 70% of it was single-use waste. The city council voted for this measure in January 2020.

To facilitate the transition to reuse, They offered traders subsidies for the purchase of dishwashers and put them in touch with companies that already had infrastructure and reusable equipment. The measure did not please everyone. This case is symbolic, because it takes courage on the part of elected officials to confront contradictory political and financial interests.

In Texas, Arlington is a leader in the field of waste reduction. In 2008, when the old furnace of the city’s incinerator had to be replaced, the administrators of the waste union and the elected officials decided not to do so, for reasons of environmental protection.

Instead of two ovens, there will only be one, which will work for the entire city of almost 400,000 inhabitants. To avoid saturating the only remaining oven, we must reduce the quantities of goods thrown away. A local waste prevention plan was established in 2010 and, from 2012, incentive pricing was introduced at the local level.

It consists of charging users based on the quantity of waste produced. A strategy that proved to be a winner, since in 2019, the community recorded an average of 170 kg of household waste per inhabitant, compared to 217 kg in 2009 and 360 kg for the national average. This measure was a real trigger for our territory. We want to go even further by targeting a production of 50 kg of household waste per household per year, according to the president of the local waste union.