Sorting through the garbage


Staying with friends in Boulder, Colo., recently, I got to see what it’s like living in a place aiming to reduce waste to zero. Boulder’s years-long process began with a citywide commitment involving businesses, institutions and residents every step of the way, from their own homes to the entire community.

In kitchens, special containers hold table scraps, veggie peelings and other compostables for weekly pickup. With homes nestled close to the front range of the Rockies, backyard composting offers a bear-tempting buffet … reason enough to let the city take over.

Among the finer points of sorting, I learned that tea bags can be composted, once tags and strings are removed. Those can be discarded — unless you want to remove the staples and make sure the string is not plastic. Consigning any smidgen to the trash bin becomes a mini personal defeat.

Businesses compete in finding ways to reduce waste — and let their customers know, encouraging creative thinking and further participation.

Recycling containers appear everywhere, from Boulder’s upscale outdoor pedestrian mall to the bus depot, offering the chance to dump that compostable paper coffee cup or plastic drink bottle.

The University of Colorado, which established a pioneering recycling program in 1976, has expanded its efforts to include: a ski bus to reduce car trips, guidance for putting on zero-waste events, and a center for teaching how to incorporate sustainable practices from architecture to office efficiency.

Finding new ways to conserve resources is an integral part of life for professors, staff and students who pride themselves on their award-winning programs.

No need to visit the city’s huge recycling “campus” to get the message that Boulder is deeply committed to becoming a zero-waste community.

So, I was startled to learn that the U.S. does so little recycling that each year we toss away enough aluminum to rebuild our commercial air fleet four times over. Most of this waste is easily recyclable pop cans and TV trays.

We lead the world in garbage, generating nearly seven times more urban refuse than France, in 10th position, does.

Making aluminum cans from used ones not only conserves that versatile metal, but also requires 95 percent less energy. Why aren’t more places embracing the multiple wins of a zero-waste plan?

The expense of hauling and wrangling valuable recyclables-turned-trash eventually falls back on every one of us as taxpayers.

What you discard depends on where you live. City dwellers tend to toss more plastics, paper and aluminum while rural areas generate more organic, compostable waste. In low-income countries, organic waste accounts for more than 60 percent of the waste stream; in high-income countries it’s only a quarter.

Growing prosperity and urbanization could double the yearly volume of stuff tossed by city dwellers by 2025, said a recent Worldwatch Institute report.

As You Sow, an organization promoting corporate environmental responsibility, reports that a staggering $11.4 billion worth of recyclables enter landfills each year — materials that easily could be reused or recycled.

Throwing stuff away was once “a sign of economic progress, but in an age of declining natural resources, such waste is now an indicator of inefficient use of valuable raw materials and market failure,” said Conrad MacKerron, with As You Sow. “It’s simply not good business to throw away billions of dollars of reusable resources.”

As a thoughtful homeowner can attest, packaging accounts for 40 percent of our waste. Most of it can be recycled and some can be avoided altogether.

Shifting much of the trash management costs from taxpayers to trash producers, known as “extended producer responsibility,” (EPR) could lead to fewer recyclables winding up in the trash, reduced carbon emissions and the use of finite resources while creating thousands of new jobs in recycling processing and collection, As You Sow argues.

It has successfully helped companies like Safeway, Target, Procter & Gamble and Walmart adopt EPR policies.

“Stateâofâtheâart mining of our postâconsumer packaging ‘trash’ … will ease the stress on our planet’s limited natural resources,” MacKerron says. 

“It’s good business sense and basic common sense.”

We need more R’s: Reduce. Reuse. Repurpose. Refuse that bag, that over-packaged product, then Recycle.


Diana Somerville writes about creating more sustainable communities and our personal connection with the environment. A Clallam County resident, she’s a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Reach her at or e-mail