Talking Trash with the Mayor

Tim Taylor
A conversation with Sara Kurovski, Mayor for the city of Pleasant Hill, Iowa.

The beauty about trash is the simple fact that it disappears. Whether it’s your favorite 90’s tie from the Jerry Garcia collection your wife “misplaced” or last night’s dinner; our trash has the miraculous gift of vanishing every day! Since our trash output is practically invisible, it becomes extremely difficult to motivate the average consumer to even acknowledge that waste doesn’t just magically disappear and to understand our country’s growing concern over waste management.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “In 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycled/composted almost 87 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.5 percent recycling rate. On average, we recycled/composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.38 pounds per person per day.”

While the amount of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) has increased over the last 25 years, so has the total amount of MSW recycling which has increased from 16% in 1990 to 34.5% in 2012. This sharp increase in the recycling rate amongst Americans can be attributed to technological advances in single-stream recycling, but can also be linked to the construction waste management credits found in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

Despite the influence of technology and green building rating systems, neither seems sufficient enough to motivate the average American to recycle. However, Sara Kurovski, Manager for Sustainability at Kum & Go and Mayor for the city of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, has insight into what does motivate businesses and residents to recycle. As the former operations program manager for Metro Waste Authority, she knows a few things about the beauty of waste and how smart waste management is just good business.

Q: Why would local businesses care about recycling besides the environmental benefits?

Sara Kurovski: Landfills are highly regulated in terms of land, water and air. This translates into a higher cost for businesses to send their trash to the landfill instead of a recycling facility. Businesses are not required to recycle, but more and more are doing it because they realize the financial benefits in recycling over just sending everything to the landfill.

Q: Considering all landfills have to comply with federal regulations, what has the state of Iowa done to make their landfills as efficient and environmentally neutral as possible?

SK: The Waste Authority worked with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create an environmental management system implemented for all landfills in the state of Iowa. Each landfill had to come into regulatory compliance and then we created a PLAN, DO, CHECK, and ACT management loop. The low hanging fruits were: no idling policy for machinery, purchase electric bulldozers, include garden waste into composting programs, create stakeholder education and standard operating procedures for workers. We also started a roof shingle recycling project in cooperation with the Department of Transportation, DNR and local roofers. In just 9 months, asphalt shingles were an approved material for recycling across the entire state. While no one wants a landfill, they are an unfortunate necessary evil. In the state of Iowa, landfills are doing the best they can to be as efficient/environmentally responsible as possible.

Q: How did the Metro Waste Authority identify businesses that could benefit from recycling and how did you motivate the business to change their ways?

SK: One way that the waste authority motivated people is by monitoring clean recyclables coming to the landfill, then contacting the organization directly. We would ask the hauler where they picked up larger loads of clean cardboard. To give an example, when we see large amounts of clean cardboard coming from a particular office building, we would then contact the owner and say, ‘We noticed you are already separating your waste, but did you know that it costs you $28/ton to dispose of your trash but $9/ton to send that same material to the recycling facility?’ This made the business case for recycling a no-brainer.

Q: What is the biggest reason for companies to NOT recycle?

SK: One of the biggest headaches for companies trying to implement a recycling protocol is the physical location of the dumpsters. Many buildings run into a problem because their loading docks are only large enough for one dumpster or their loading docks did not account for multiple waste streams. LEED prerequisites like Storage and Collection of Recyclables have certainly helped design teams account for different waste streams, which makes life easier for the operations folks.

Q: There have been quite a few case studies on the economic benefits of recycling in the private and public sector, but the economic benefits for residents are not always as clear. As the Mayor of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, how do you keep your constituents motivated about recycling?

SK: What motivates residential recyclers is much different than what motivates local businesses. We have found that residential recycling is motivated more by community norms. Most people do not want to be the only family on the block that doesn’t recycle. Even though the household does not gain financially from recycling, they get to become a part of the community that cares about the environment.

With a little help from our operations team, I researched the business case for recycling at USGBC’s LEED CI v2009 Platinum Headquarters at 2101 L Street NW, Washington, DC. It currently costs 2101 L Street $6.10 per yard for trash removal versus $2.43 per yard for recycling removal. In the month of November, our building generated 154.8 yards of trash and 120.0 yards of recycling per month. If the building were able to divert an additional half its remaining trash to recycling, the total cost for removal services currently priced at $1,236/month would drop to $952/month. This translates into a total savings of over $3,400/year when factoring in the increased diversion to recycling instead of the landfill.

The motivations for businesses versus residents to recycle are very different, but there are definitely major savings for local governments and building owners. The simple example focused on the waste stream at 2101 L Street ignores the economic benefits to the local economy and job creation potential. By accenting cost savings, job creation and the economic benefits of recycling during election season in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, we can surmise that Mrs. Kurovski will have a long tenure as the town’s fair mayor.

Tim Taylor
Tim Taylor is an Account Manager with the business development team at USGBC and currently works with over 250 member companies to find business solutions that facilitate their sustainability goals.