Beyond RecyclingThe act of throwing something away is a daily reality for everyone in the Fredericksburg region. It usually comes with at least some thought—landfill, recycle or compost? Donate or trash?
An area environmental group is trying to encourage people to think beyond those day-to-day questions, and recently hosted a forum that took a big-picture look at taking out the trash.
Presenters brought up questions like:
What if local solid waste authorities can no longer find markets for the recyclable materials they collect?
How many of the trucks clogging our roads are actually just our garbage being hauled from place to place?
How can we stop putting most of our trash in a landfill and cut down on the amount of waste we generate in the first place?
The Climate, Environment and Readiness group, called CLEAR, an effort organized by Marstel–Day and the University of Mary Washington, hosted this gathering of solid waste experts last month as part of its mission to build resilience and sustainability within the Fredericksburg region.
In a report circulated after the forum, CLEAR leaders stated that changing people’s patterns of waste generation and disposal will require steps ranging from greater public education to regulatory changes to allow for new technologies.
But on a practical level, many of the forum’s speakers encouraged changing the way we think about waste at both the household and the institutional level.
Public outreach needs to go beyond telling people to recycle, and should urge people to think about how they can reduce the amount of waste they generate in the first place, said Sara Bixby, the deputy executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
“Waste reduction has always been the top priority,” she said, “but it’s been ignored because it’s easier to manage stuff than to change behavior. We have to keep the waste and recyclables from being created in the first place.”
This could be as simple as making more mindful decisions about shopping, she said.
Shopping locally instead of having something shipped by an online vendor means fewer cardboard boxes and packaging materials. Buying something used can not only keep an item out of the landfill, but can also leave the buyer with little to no packing materials to dispose of.
Diane Jones, recycling coordinator for the Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Board (known as the R–Board), quoted EPA research that estimates that the packaging alone on every new product we buy constitutes 25 percent of the waste it generates.
“We need to be buying used products if they are good, and we need to donate” instead of sending old items to the landfill, she said. “We really need to press those issues with people.”
The R–Board has offered free Backyard Composting 101 classes for the past 10 years. After taking the classes, residents of Fredericksburg and Stafford County can purchase a backyard compost bin called the Earth Machine for $25.
Encouraging home composting of food waste has been the R–Board’s focus, but some residents at the forum expressed an interest in more options.
As the city of Fredericksburg adjusts to its recent transition to new bins for trash and recycling collection, the city’s Clean and Green Commission would like to start talking about separating out another waste stream—yard waste and other compostable items, potentially even food waste at some point.
Commission Chairman Robert Courtnage said those discussions are at a very early stage, and he supports the work the R-Board does now to encourage backyard composting.
He said he hopes events like the CLEAR forum can help move the conversation along.
“We would love to find ways to divert these materials out of the waste stream,” he said.
Change on bigger scale
The R-Board’s Jones estimates that the average family of four could eliminate 5 pounds a day from their waste generation by composting at home.
At the institutional level, the potential impact is much greater.
Both the R–Board and Spotsylvania’s Livingston landfill sell compost made from biosolids from wastewater treatment and some yard clippings.
Spotsylvania County has an established biosolids composting program that processes over 20,000 tons of material each year. The R–Board manages a similar program on a much smaller scale. The resulting material is a nutrient-rich soil amendment suitable for residential and commercial use.
Spotsylvania has even looked in to the possibility of building a food waste composting program, working with grocery distribution centers that have opened recently in the county.
Deputy Director of Public Works Ben Loveday said the county sees these efforts as economic development drivers, as corporations like Lidl, which recently opened a distribution center in the county, are highly interested in sustainability.
“We see it as a way to potentially gain a competitive edge when trying to attract businesses to Spotsylvania that have sustainability as a primary corporate goal,” he said.