Missoula may need mandatory recycling to reach zero waste

Mandatory recycling is a complicated proposition, especially in a city like Missoula where the government neither owns the landfill nor the trash-hauling utility. (Missoula Current file photo)

If Missoula is to ever truly commit to recycling, the city likely will need an ordinance requiring the practice, a pair of city officials said.

“We have thought about the recycling component a lot, and talked about it a lot,” said city communications director Ginny Merriam. “We’ve heard from other cities that you can suggest and encourage recycling all you want, but you can only get to a certain level of compliance without an ordinance.”

Seattle, for example, banned food and food waste – pizza boxes, tin cans, soda cans and bottles, food wrappers and containers – from its landfill on Jan. 1, 2015.

The reason: City Council members had set a goal to recycle and compost 60 percent of Seattle’s waste by 2015, but after years of steady gains, recycling was actually on the decline.

So city officials suggested mandatory recycling and composting of food-related wastes – and the waste-reduction campaign was back on track.

Mandatory recycling is a complicated proposition, especially in a city like Missoula where the government neither owns the landfill nor the trash-hauling utility, said Chase Jones, Missoula’s energy conservation coordinator.

But a recycling ordinance – combined with voluntary measures – is probably the only way Missoula will reach its “Zero by 50” goal. A Zero Waste Plan unveiled by city and nonprofit group leaders last July provided a blueprint – a lengthy to-do list – to achieve zero local waste generation by 2050.

Among the potential action items: a “pay as you throw” system of trash collection; the use of recycled materials in road construction; bans on the disposal of electronic waste, reusable materials and other goods in the landfill.

Among the plan’s many stated goals is universal access to zero waste systems, services and programs – in other words, easy and convenient access to collection points for recycled goods.

“In all the communities we looked at that are on their way to zero waste, the city has played a leadership role in changing the rules of the game, so wasting isn’t as easy as it once was,” said Jeremy Drake, of Missoula’s Home ReSource, when the Zero Waste Plan was introduced.

“The entire community needs to be involved,” Drake said. “Leadership from different sectors needs to be involved.”

Fort Collins, Colorado, has been on the path toward zero waste for years – with strong leadership from city officials, area landfills and trash haulers, nonprofit groups and individual citizens.

As far back as March of 2013, the city of Fort Collins implemented an ordinance banning the disposal of cardboard in bound-for-the-landfill trash.

“No person shall place recyclable cardboard in refuse containers for collection,” the law reads. It applies equally to businesses and residences.

The penalty for violating the ban? Up to $2,650 or 180 days in jail.

Compare that to Seattle’s fine for tossing food waste or recyclables: Any single-family trash container holding more than 10 percent recyclables or food waste by volume is assessed a $1 fine on the next garbage bill.

But Fort Collins has also employed many voluntary recycling campaigns and recycling-themed community events. A to Z lists of recyclables. Special collection events for “hard-to-recycle” items and for heavy plastic household items like laundry baskets and trash cans. A sale on discounted backyard composters. A recycling center where, for $5, residents can bring a car filled with recyclables and get help sorting the collection into appropriate bins.

Officials in Austin, Texas, have taken a similar approach, using both a “Universal Recycling Ordinance” and a large number of voluntary and educational campaigns.

“The Universal Recycling Ordinance supports Austin’s Zero Waste goal by requiring affected property owners to ensure that tenants and employees have access to convenient recycling,” the city explains to newcomers. The ordinance is intended to “increase the life of local landfills, reduce harmful environmental impacts, and encourage economic development.”

In Missoula, Merriam and Jones already are at work on a proposed ban on the use of plastic bags by the city’s largest retailers. It’s a relatively simple, direct first step, they said.

But even that effort will include significant educational and voluntary components, they said in a recent interview with Missoula Current.

“We are not seeing this as a crackdown type of ordinance,” Merriam said. “And we would hope that citizens would help, too.”

“We would work with retailers to make it something positive – where retailers could get involved and use the ban to market their business on preprinted, reusable bags,” she said. Nonprofit groups could get involved as well.

That’s why Jones plans to organize a number of “targeted stakeholder engagement events” before introducing any sort of ban on plastic bags – and why he says a mandatory recycling ordinance won’t even be discussed until the plastic bag issue is resolved.

“An ordinance has to have input from everyone before we bring it to the City Council for their consideration,” Jones said.

And, surprisingly, the immense quantity of plastic bags used currently has a decidedly negative effect on recycling efforts, Jones learned in talking with recyclers and landfill managers, locally and elsewhere.

“These thin grocery bags end up in recycling bins like we have in Missoula, and they cause terrible problems for sorters and processors,” he said. “They really jam up the equipment.”

So to start Missoula’s effort with a plastic bag ban makes sense, Jones said. “This first step would ease the burden on our recycling system and make recycling more viable and more efficient.”

And the hard work toward Zero by 50 will have begun.