Exploration of where we are and where we’re going
There are many cities throughout the United States that have understood the environmental importance of becoming a zero-waste city. Through progressive changes in solid waste management, many cities are on their way to zero waste and Gainesville should be one of them.
Gainesville and surrounding Alachua County have long made strides towards encouraging and enforcing responsible environmental practices. Recently, Gainesville City Commission made a commitment to move forward with implementing a complete Zero Waste policy. Designing and implementing a comprehensive Zero Waste plan is an amazing opportunity to bring all members of the community together to co-create an environmentally sustainable and more self-reliant city.
The City and County Comprehensive Plans already have policies and ordinances in place to protect our natural resources and reduce waste as well as ongoing projects to meet sustainability goals . In addition, the University of Florida, community organizations, and many local businesses are working towards environmental goals. All of these efforts may be included in, or coordinated with, a Zero Waste plan.
Since 2017, the city has included presentations and discussions on zero waste in several city meetings . In addition, the county has continued to evaluate it’s sustainability goals and procedures. During this process, many ideas have been offered that could be incorporated into a Zero Waste plan.
In what follows, those ideas will be explored along with other methods of waste diversion that are currently being implemented, expanded, or are in planning stages. These include sustainable materials management, a resource recovery park, composting and food recovery, reducing trash, recycling, and outreach. The current status and future potential of each of these for a Zero Waste plan will be discussed in separate sections of this post.
Zero waste is a system that encourages sustainable natural cycles of resources through a circular economy and it is achieved through extensive waste reduction efforts, waste initiatives like bans on single-use disposable items, and source separation to be sure that no valuable resources make their way to the landfill.
The most straightforward way to reduce waste is to simply put fewer things in the trash. This could include recycling more, buying less, reusing goods at home, or being conscious of packaging when shopping (bringing reusable bags to the grocery store) and dining (dining in rather than ordering takeout, for instance).
Alachua County has had a pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program in place for over 20 years. The PAYT program charges a yearly rate that depends on the size of your curbside garbage bin. A small bin holds a kitchen waste bag full of trash and costs about $120/year, or $10/month. At the larger end, a 96-gallon bin that holds 7 kitchen bags full of trash costs a little over twice that, or about $23 each month. The county saw a recycling rate increase of 25% and a dramatic decline in waste generation shortly after the program’s inception . It’s difficult to determine how much of this behavioral change was incentivized by PAYT and how much was due to the educational campaign surrounding the rollout of the PAYT program. Overall, the success of PAYT suggests that our community is willing to work with local government on environmental stewardship.
Several suggestions have been put forward at City Commission meetings for further reducing trash as we move toward zero waste including prohibiting single-use plastic bags and polystyrene, evaluating a Pay-As-You-Throw system for multi-family settings, equipping dumpsters with lids to avoid rainwater, and allowing small businesses to use residential bins instead of commercial dumpsters .
People recycle when it’s easy.
Currently, the most encouraged and documented means of waste diversion is recycling. Every year the Florida Department of Environmental Protection releases a report that includes the recycling rate of each county in Florida . Based on these recycling rates alone, we were hitting our waste diversion milestone goals until 2016, when we dipped below the 60% target.
To encourage recycling, the city and county work together to manage a curbside collection program that includes solid waste and recycling bins . Every home within the city limits as well as some unincorporated parts of the city are included in the program. Not all recyclable materials are accepted in curbside bins, but many of these items can be accepted elsewhere . Zero Waste Gainesville has a handy post about how to recycle in Gainesville. For a more comprehensive guide see the City of Gainesville’s guide for recycling and disposal.
The city and county both have mandatory commercial recycling ordinances . To help businesses recycle, the county website keeps a list of collection service companies and drop-off recycling centers for a variety of items. The county also has a recycling assistance program that helps businesses assess their recycling container needs, finds competitive bids for hauling service, provides printable “What to Recycle” signs, and offers training for employees. County inspectors go out daily to inspect businesses and apartment complexes for compliance with the ordinance and give out suggestions .
The city recycling ordinance requires businesses to recycle items on the list of designated recyclables only if those items make up more than a de minimus amount (15%) of their total waste stream. While this ordinance does result in higher recycling rates, it has been suggested that the city reduce the De Minimus limit in the ordinance. There are also issues with multifamily recycling, which has a much lower recycling rate than single-family households. Although ordinance requires a number of recycling containers that depends on the number of residents in apartment complexes, enforcing the adequate number of bins requires regular visits by county inspectors and many renters complain that current recycling containers are inadequate or difficult to reach. Expanding the number of containers required by multifamily residences has been suggested to help remedy this. These and other suggestions made during Commission meetings for improving recycling include :
- Establishing standards for uniformity of recycling receptacles and signage Proposed standards must be met by businesses, institutions, and haulers. This is being workshopped by the Recycling Subcommittee of the Resource Recovery Working Group
- Making public recycling receptacles available everywhere trash receptacles are located.
- Reducing the cost of recycling service to small businesses – This could be achieved by allowing them to be collected by residential collection vehicles already operating in their vicinity.
- Reduce the De Minimus amount of recyclables that commercial businesses are allowed by ordinance to throw away each week. – This is currently at 15% per recyclable product.
- Replacing orange & blue bins with orange & blue wheeled 64-gallon carts – Wheeled carts will hold more recycling, and are easier to get to the curb. Orange would be collected one week, blue the next.
- Establishing more realistic requirements for multi-family recycling – This would involve re-evaluating capacity and container placement and enforcement by ordinance.
- Requiring multi-family recycling.
- Requiring residential recycling.
- Requiring recycling of marketable Construction & Demolition (C&D) materials – Recycling can be enforced by requiring verification of recycling in order for contractors to have their building permit deposit refunded. In California, mandatory C&D recycling has resulted in C&D recycling rates around 76% . Our county’s two C&D operators report a recycling rate of 56% (consistently largely of concrete) 
- Awarding good recycling habits – For instance, by randomly auditing households and awarding a cash prize if their curbside trash bin contains no recyclable materials
Sustainable Materials Management
Source reduction, or not making the material in the first place, is by far the best thing you can do.
On April 24, 2018, Alachua County Solid Waste Management partnering with UF’s Department of Environmental Engineering presented a report on Sustainable Material Management (SMM) . The UF team conducted a study, funded by the Hinkley Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, to evaluate the current state of waste diversion in the state and investigate which modifications to the current scenario would yield the largest reduction of environmental footprint.
This research was motivated by acknowledgment by Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that we are not on track to meet our 75% waste diversion goal. The presentation stressed, however, that waste diversion is part of a larger motivation to reduce our environmental footprint in an economically viable way and it would be myopic to focus on this metric at the exclusion of this larger picture. Not all materials offer the same cost or energy savings when recycled, for example.
In contrast to focusing strictly on the waste diversion potential of a material at the end-of-life, the study quantified the environmental impact (based on greenhouse gas emissions and other energy factors) of a material from the point-of-extraction to end-of-life management.
Overall, the study showed that recycling has greater energy savings than other methods of waste diversion such as landfilling and waste-to-energy. The study found that, in Alachua County, our ferrous metal and corrugated paper recycling were doing the most to lower our environmental footprint, based on total energy savings of recycling vs. landfilling and extracting raw material to make new products .
After investigating the current energy use/savings of materials, the study turned to possible scenarios to improve waste management and materials recovery. Scenarios and their impact on recycling rate include:
- 6.2% Increase with Mandatory C&D Recycling – Assumes C&D recycling rate increases to 76%
- 4.6% Increase with Increased Food Waste Composting – Assumes recycling rate of food waste of 58%
- 4.4% Increase with Increased Curbside Recycling – Assumes all accepted materials are recycled at a rate of 75%
- 2.5% Increase with Bulky Materials Recycling – Assumes bulky materials make up 27.9% of the misc. materials waste stream and 75% of bulky materials are recycled
If we were just focused on recycling rates, the above suggests the largest increase in recycling with a mandatory C&D recycling program. If we expand our notion of waste materials management to include energy costs/savings, we see that not only are the bulky materials recycling and increased curbside recycling scenarios the biggest energy savers, they are also the most affordable options .
Resource Recovery Park
The main goal is not only to recycle more, but rather to reduce consumption and ensure that materials are made to be reused, repaired and re-imagined again and again.
Our community currently has many facilities and businesses that help to divert waste. Our existing waste and recovery facilities include:
- Leveda Brown Environmental Park, including
- Various Reuse/Recycling Facilities
- Curbside Collection
- 5 Residential Waste Collection Centers
- Thrift and Used Goods stores across the county
- New River Landfill Disposal
A resource recovery park (RRP) would augment these existing facilities as a center for the collection, sorting, and repurposing of discarded materials. It would serve not only as an opportunity to strengthen the local economy with new business development, but also as a location to potentially expand county materials management infrastructure beyond the Leveda Brown Park, which has no more space for expansion.
For years, the county has been working with UF and the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) and potential private partners to develop a RRP. At the April 24, 2018 BoCC Regular Meeting, the Commission approved a $2.6 million bid to start phase I of the RRP .
During phase I development, the necessary horizontal infrastructure, including roadways, utilities, stormwater management, and conservation & buffer areas, will be built. During phase II the facilities (vertical infrastructure) will be built. There are many development paths a resource recovery park can take, depending on goals, current facilities, and needs of the community. Options include:
- Bulky waste sorting facility – Alachua County is currently conducting a study to determine the amount and composition of bulky waste that comes through the transfer station. This will enable the county to have a better understanding of the optimal size and function of a bulky waste facility.
- Research and Development facility
- Incubator space
- Organics recovery/composting facility
- Construction and demolition (C&D) materials recycling plant – There are some options for C&D materials recycling in the county, however a larger facility would be needed if recycling of heavy component materials like drywall becomes a requirement as part of our Zero Waste plan.
- Reuse warehouse – Gainesville is fortunate to have a local reuse warehouse, The Repurpose Project, a Habitat For Humanity ReStore, as well as many thrift stores with similar items. Many reusable items still end up in the waste stream, however, so a reuse warehouse within the resource recovery park would be a helpful addition.
- Reuse and repair facility – In addition to being a reuse warehouse, The Repurpose Project also hosts Fix-It Cafe where members of the community can bring small broken items to be fixed with donated parts. However, repair is limited to certain items and there is room for an additional facility.
- Waste-to-energy recovery system – One potential tenant that would create a waste-to-energy facility is RES Polyflow, a company that converts mixed polymer waste to fuels and petrochemicals. It was noted at the April BoCC meeting that the space for our RRP may not be large enough for RES Polyflow.
One concern that was brought up during the meeting was whether Alachua County is large enough to support and RRP and/or whether a RRP would displace existing facilities and privately-owned businesses that are already providing materials recovery services. Ideally, a RRP would generate, not displace, local businesses and as more usable materials come out of a recovery park, local end markets will be helped, not hurt, as they grow to meet supply. A RRP has the potential to strengthen our local economy and ensure that recovered materials are not being shipped long distances or ending up in a landfill after the recovery process.
Composting and Food Recovery
According to the study conducted by UF Environmental Engineering Department,
“The food waste composting scenario displaces 58% of the total food waste generated toward composting resulting in a 57% total recycling rate. The GHG emissions and energy savings in this scenario are 3.3% less and 0.4% more than the baseline scenario.”
In other words, the study found that there is no net energy savings associated with this composting scenario. Fortunately, the city is focusing on a food waste plan that extends beyond composting alone. Suggestions made for incorporating composting and food recovery into a Zero Waste Plan include :
- Establishing/Coordinating a Food Recovery System and create incentives/requirements for food service establishments – A food recovery program will triage food as 1) fit for redistribution to those in need, 2) fit for animal/livestock feed, or 3) industrial use and compost.
- Establishing Home Compost Incentive Program – This would incentivize households to reduce yard waste and recover organics.
- Piloting a program at a local restaurant – The program would temporarily provide a waste digester or other organics reduction system to one of the downtown restaurants. At the end of the program the digester could be installed at Grace Marketplace, moved to another business, or sold.
- Diverting street sweepings – Recovering/reusing most of the material
- Promoting the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy
Education, Conversation, and Culture Change
One of the best ways to achieve source reduction is educating our public on how to do that.
The success of our waste diversion and Zero Waste goals depend on incentivizing many parts of the city to participate. Zero Waste Gainesville has identified five key areas that must be involved: Commercial, Multi-Family, Residential, Municipal, and Construction and Demolition.
While it is ultimately up to the individuals, businesses, and organizations to do their part, the success of zero waste policies depends largely on their design and implementation. Specifically, it is important that policy is created with the participation of those it will impact and leverages natural incentives to make the desirable actions as effortless as possible.
Education and outreach targeted at source reduction can provide sustainable environmental savings without the added (energy and financial) costs of end-of-life infrastructure. Research from Oregon, for example, shows that spending resources on education campaigns focused on source reduction of food waste is more beneficial than focusing all resources on composting alone .
Within the County Comprehensive Plan, Objective 1.5 includes the following policies pertaining to education and community involvement in sustainable waste management:
- County Policy 1.5.6 The County shall provide coordination and assistance to all local municipalities, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College and the local United States Postal Service to maintain effective and efficient recycling programs.
- County Policy 1.5.7 The County shall continue to promote waste prevention, source reduction, re-use, recycling, the purchase of goods made from recycled materials, composting and pollution prevention through public education programs. Such programs will be directed to schools, churches, civic organizations, service clubs, businesses, institutions and residents.
There are currently several ways the county is addressing these policies, including :
- Education Outreach – This includes regular events and the Tools for Schools program
- A Resource Recovery Working Group – This group includes members from local municipalities, local recycling companies, the University of Florida, and Santa Fe College. They meet every other month to develop strategies to improve resource recovery.
Some of the suggestions in City Commission meetings that would further conversation, education, and culture change include:
- Increasing waste reduction/diversion in city operations and facilities
- Emphasizing waste reduction during new hire orientations to build a recycling culture change
- Creating an annually updated educational program that can be easily distributed to homeowners and tenants
- Encouraging collaboration with the city, UF, Santa Fe, Alachua County, and the School Board on the creation of consistent waste diversion/Zero Waste policies.
Measurable Goals, Tracking, and Research
We’ve worked very hard over the last 20 years getting really really good policies in our plan…that’s the beginning of the job and not the end… As part of our comp plan overhaul, we should focus not just on how would we like to change our policies but how effectively are we implementing the policies that we’ve already adopted.
Operationalizing our zero waste goals so that progress can be measured is the best way to understand and communicate the strengths and weakness of a Zero Waste plan. To apply for grants, to offer our city as an example to others, and to motivate our community it is helpful to be able to point to statistics about our waste diversion, recycling rates, and other metrics. Those metrics must be regularly and reliably measured to track progress.
Currently, the city and county plans share the same 75% waste diversion goal and timeline, based on state legislation passed in 2010 . This goal includes milestones to divert waste at a rate of 40% by December 31, 2012; 50% by December 31, 2014; 60% by December 31, 2016; 70% by December 31, 2018; and 75% by December 31, 2020.
If we approach this from a very thoughtful manner to design a model that works for Gainesville I think it could also be a model for other communities of our size that are trying to accomplish this.
A Zero Waste model would expand our current waste diversion goals, either making the existing targets more aggressive or placing more ambitious targets further into the future. For instance, Austin, TX shares our 75% by 2020 goal but expands further to 85% by 2025, 90% by 2030, 95% by 2040 and a restorative economy by 2050 . At a City Commission meetings in late 2017, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos and Zero Waste Gainesville presented material in which they suggested that to our 75% by 2020 we add waste diversion goals of 90% by 2030 and “Zero Waste” by 2040 .
In addition to forms of waste diversion such as recycling and reusing materials, a Zero Waste plan should target source reduction. Source reduction is more difficult to track and measure, and can even result in a reduction of recycling rates as fewer materials are being used in the first place. Although a Zero Waste plan should strive to track and measure progress wherever possible, it should not chase desirable data to the point that we lose sight of the meaning behind the mission and ignore something as important as source reduction.
One of the challenges we have with the 75% recycling goal is that you don’t really get credit for source reduction, for not making the materials in the first place.
In addition to tracking the progress and implementation of current policies, it’s important to continue doing research on what policies and methods of tracking are most effective in the first place. Currently, UF is working with Alachua County Solid Waste and Resource Recovery on studies including:
- A Bulk Waste Study – this study will determine what our bulky waste is composed of and how to develop a bulk waste facility.
- A Waste Composition Study – The last waste composition study was published in 2010 .
In our county and others, research pointing to source reduction as having the biggest energy savings of all waste management strategies means that we should find ways of measuring and tracking source reduction in our community.
Some of the suggestions for tracking and research include:
- Reevaluating the city’s residential collection program to determine areas of improvement
- Implementing true-cost accounting for collection & disposal throughout General Government
- Developing a comprehensive system for quantifying all the waste generated in Gainesville
- Creating an Office of Sustainability to oversee sustainability plans and push sustainability efforts
Moving Towards Zero Waste as a Community
Zero waste is a philosophy that promotes reuse, recycling, and protection of resources, but also, and more importantly, it emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life-cycle of products, processes and systems.
With City Commission discussing zero waste and county commission discussing sustainable materials management, it is clear that our local government is recognizing the need to update our perspective on waste management and waste diversion. Zero waste and sustainable materials management are about more than just recycling. They are about source reduction and finding ways to recycle and reuse materials in the most energy-efficient ways possible.
Moving towards zero waste has benefits that extend beyond having less trash in the landfill. Adopting zero waste habits and policies as a community will also improve the health of our citizens and wildlife by improving air and water quality and reducing toxic materials and pollutants in our environment. Becoming a zero waste city can also mean a stronger economy as more materials are recycled, reused, and repurposed locally. 
The premise of this policy is, of course, the right one which is how do we as a society at every level move away from ridiculous amounts of waste and move towards reusing and recycling in a comprehensive and total manner. This is a community-wide effort.
Becoming a Zero Waste city is not just about policy change to enforce new behaviors. It requires a community-wide effort to teach, learn about, and adopt zero waste practices, backed by smart policy that is both energy and cost efficient (or revenue generating), that leverages natural human incentives and tendencies, and that is operationalized and tracked wherever possible.