Try this on for size: “Aiming for zero waste is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective strategies available for combating climate change.” This statement is included in “Stop Trashing the Climate,” a report published in June, 2008 by members of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle and the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance. In 2006, the U.S. generated an incredible 251 million tons of municipal solid waste. Where does it go? To landfills or incinerators. The authors of this report assert “methane emissions from landfills alone represent 5.2% of all U.S. greenhouse gases.” Methane is a far more potent gas than CO2 and its warming impact on the atmosphere far worse. As for incinerators, even those that generate energy in the form of steam heat are “energy wasters rather than generators… Incinerators emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal-fired, oil-fired or natural gas-fired power plants.”
The report advocates a “Zero Waste Approach” in which we would reduce our waste by 1% per year between now and 2030. This would reduce our CO2 production by 406 megatons per year, “equivalent to removing 21 percent of the nation’s 417 coal-fired power plants.”
That’s the Big Picture. Zoom in to the local scene, specifically, to the Linden Hills neighborhood in South Minneapolis. Over the past two weeks, nearly one thousand shiny green carts have arrived to take their places alongside the standard gray garbage carts issued by the city. Linden Hills, home to 4,000 single-family homes, is the site of a pilot project by the city of Minneapolis to test the logistics and financial feasibility of collecting residential Source-Separated Organics (SSO). All food scraps, paper products (including food packaging and soiled paper such as pizza boxes) and other biodegradable material can go in the green carts. The primary advantage from an environmental standpoint is that every ton of organic waste collected is one less ton of garbage heading for Minneapolis’ municipal incinerator or, in the event of overflow, to outlying landfills. Hennepin County officials estimate that organic waste comprises 25% of municipal garbage. There is the potential, given full participation, for Linden Hills residents to reduce their trash output by a significant amount. At the present time, all SSO waste is delivered to commercial composting facilities, where it is processed into rich compost suitable for garden and landscaping projects. In the future, this waste will likely go to an anaerobic digester, a facility that creates both energy and compost by breaking down the waste via bacteria.
The Linden Hills pilot project, financed and implemented by the city of Minneapolis with funding assistance from Hennepin County, would not exist without the efforts of citizens who are concerned about global warming and seeking ways to address the problem at a local level. Linden Hills Power and Light (LHPL) is a non-profit established to shrink the neighborhood’s carbon footprint through education and waste reduction, energy conservation and the creation of renewable energy. This non-profit organization, along with well over 100 “compost captains” - individuals who are zealously promoting SSO participation on their own blocks - has made this project happen. If we can do it, so can others. When this pilot project is deemed successful (through high participation and financial savings for the city), chances are good the program will be extended to other neighborhoods who demonstrate sufficient organization to make it work. Minneapolis stands next in line to join San Francisco and Toronto, two other large North American cities who are currently managing comprehensive SSO programs.