State of the Environment: Waste
State of the Environment: Waste
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Recycling rates are rising, and per capita disposal rates in landfills are down substantially, according to Mecklenburg County’s 2012 State of the Environment Report.
The report rates all four indicators in the section on waste as “good” and getting better: commercial waste; yard waste; residential recycling; and household hazardous waste. Waste is the only one of the report’s four major indicators to receive all positive scores and upward trends.
Last year, county residents and businesses sent more than 1 million tons of solid waste to landfills. The local per capita disposal rate is 1.18 tons per person per year, down considerably from a rate of 1.96 tons/person/year in 1999. Residential waste, which makes up about 35 percent of the waste stream, has declined in the five-year period between 2006 and 2011 (see chart below). According to the report, the percentage of residential waste recycled, including yard waste, has risen from 24.2 percent to 31.2 percent. That’s a positive trend.
Commercial waste, nearly half the county’s waste stream, is also declining. Commercial waste, per capita, was almost a ton a year in 2008, but for the past two years has hovered near a half-ton, a 37 percent reduction; and since 1998, the baseline year, the reduction totals 47 percent, the report says.
Recent policies that require recycling, as well as new equipment and more landfill bans are producing the intended results: reducing the county’s solid waste stream. Waste reduction is seen in all categories. Yard waste, which comes mainly from landscaping and land clearing activities, is declining. The amount of yard waste being diverted from landfills has risen by 39 percent since 2006. In 2008, Mecklenburg County began selling composted yard waste to the public, rather than to vendors for resale. This change caused sales to nearly double from 2008 to 2009.
That simple strategy has many benefits. The county makes money and sets an example for sustainable practices. Using mulch and compost made from local sources also reduces the risk of introducing invasive species brought in through mulch from other areas, which helps protect our local habitat. Mulch and compost can also substantially reduce the need for harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which then find their way into our streams and drinking water.
Residential recycling rates have continued to rise, offsetting the increasing population and the trash they generate. Overall, the residential waste stream has decreased 9 percent per capita each year since 2006, the report says. The county’s improved, single-stream recycling facility has made it easier and more convenient for residents to recycle. Its household hazardous waste collection program has also seen an average 11.8 percent increase in annual tonnage since 2006. The household waste program lets county residents discard things that are toxic, flammable, corrosive or explosive. To see the four full-service recycling centers, which accept household hazardous waste, click here.
The report attributes a 25 percent annual rise in recovery rates of electronic waste at the county’s full service recycling centers to state landfill bans, which prohibit dumping computer devices and televisions.
Does recycling really make a difference? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, recycling and composting diverted 85.1 million tons of material from landfills in 2010 alone, up from 15 million tons in 1980. “This prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent into the air in 2010 –equivalent to taking 36 million cars off the road for a year,” the EPA says. This is significant. As the 2012 State of the Environment report says, in Mecklenburg County air quality continues to be the biggest environmental problem. The county’s air pollution troubles are linked to heavy automobile use and other mobile sources of ground level ozone. (Read more about Mecklenburg’s air quality here.)
The EPA also reports that the average American discards 4.43 pounds of garbage every day, or 0.808 tons per person per year, a number much lower than the county’s average of 1.18 tons/person/year. So while Mecklenburg’s waste numbers are down from previous years, there remains room to improve.
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