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America's wasteland: A tale of two cities


Updated November 14, 2018 10:26 PM EST

Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 1, 2017. We're bringing it back today in observance of America Recycles Day.

WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - Americans love their trash -- so much so that they generate more than 4 pounds of it per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That means as much as 254 million tons of trash each year are collected from coast to coast.

Compounding the problem is that the United States not only produces more waste than any other country in the world, but also has a pretty abysmal recycling rate, standing at about 34 percent.

Most of that trash ends up in one of the nearly 10,000 municipal waste facilities, a.k.a. landfills, in the U.S. One of those resides in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Prince William County, Virginia.

According to recycling program manager Scott McDonald, Prince William County's landfill accepts about 400,000 tons of trash. The recycling rate in the county is actually lower than the national average -- coming in around 32 percent.

"One of the reasons for that is yard waste. We don't currently have recycling yard waste programs here in the county."
Scott McDonald, Prince William County recycling program manager

But travel across the country and you'll find a city that's taking measures to increase its waste sustainability in the midst of a mounting problem. Portland, Oregon, for instance, instituted a cutting-edge pilot program in 2006 dubbed "Portland Recycles!" The plan, which was rolled out in two phases, changed the way Portlanders recycled and composted.

First, in 2008, Portland provided its residents with one roll cart for mixed recycling and another for yard debris. Those two bins were in addition to the yellow glass recycling bin and gray trash roll cart they already had. But the big changes didn't come until 2011, when the city gave residents a food scraps bin, reduced the size of the standard trash bin by half, and changed the pickup of that cart to every other week, instead of weekly.

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That essentially forced a shift in behavior. Residents would have to divide and comb through their waste more carefully, since their trash receptacles were not only reduced in size, but their pickup was also a lot less frequent.

"That was a big change," said Alicia Polacok, who works in the Recycling Outreach and Involvement department at the City of Portland.

But the change worked -- at least for Portland, which saw a 300-percent increase in recycling and composting. Though Portland fails to compare in size to some of the other major U.S. metropolitan areas, these small efforts could resonate on a much larger scale. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 30 to 40 percent of the food in the U.S. goes to waste, amounting up to about 133 billion pounds in 2010. That makes it the single largest component going into landfills.

And Portland isn't the only West Coast city that's emerging as a recycling leader. Its larger neighbors also boast impressive recycling rates after establishing similar programs: San Francisco (85 percent), Los Angeles (76 percent) and San Jose (73 percent).

Polacok explained that the program's success depended largely on two parts: reaching out to educate the public about the changes, as well as explaining why the changes were being made.

"People want to know why and the details. Part of my job is making sure that the correct information's out there and that they're trying to stick with it as much as possible."
Alicia Polacok, City of Portland Recycling Outreach and Involvement

For Portlanders, the message that resonated wasn't comparing it to its rival cities, but learning that that food scraps could be used for another public good.

“One that we honed in on was what it becomes, that it becomes this nutrient-rich fertilizer that is a really health soil amendment for gardens and yards and the farms," she said.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, McDonald of the Prince William County, Virginia, landfill agrees, saying Americans need to look at their trash in a fresh way.

“Their trash is really natural resources, and if they don’t sort those resources out and it goes into the trash, come to a landfill or a waste energy facility, they’re not going to get claimed for the resources. It’s very important for people, even though it takes a little bit extra time in some cases, to look at their waste as resources for future products.”

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