Jefferson County is sending far more waste to landfills than it needs to. In fact, about half of materials that could have been recycled or composted were trashed by citizens and businesses in 2015, according to a third-party study commissioned by the Louisville Metro Department of Public Works.
That’s about 834,000 tons.
The two-year study, released last week, sought to shine a light on Jefferson County’s waste management system from start to finish, said Pete Flood, Public Works’ compliance and enforcement manager.
“To know exactly what we have going into the landfill is the first step towards being able to reduce what goes into the landfill,” he said.
The two sectors that performed best at keeping recyclable or compostable materials out of landfills were construction and demolition, which diverted 81 percent of materials, and industrial, commercial and institutional, which diverted 42 percent, according to 2015 data.
Flood said that could be because some operators in those sectors have set sustainability goals based on customer demand, economics or both. He said that even though these sectors are performing well, even higher rates of diversion from landfill could have a major impact.
Potentially recoverable residential waste was far more likely to end up in the landfill, the report said. Just 18 percent of material that could have been diverted from the landfill in 2015 actually was.
And he said only about 30 percent of residential customers participate in recycling programs. That could be because parts of Jefferson County require residents to opt in to recycling pickup for an extra fee.
“Really the holy grail of getting anything off the ground in residential is you have to be able to convince people that it’s in their best interest,” Flood said.
Recycling and yard-waste composting could have saved more than one-third of materials from the landfill in 2015, while food scrap composting would have saved another 20 percent, and donations a further 10 percent, the study said.
Increased recycling participation by the residential sector — up to 90 percent — could have a “huge” impact in a sector that Flood said he sees as a prime area for improvement.
But that would take a while. The Sustain Louisville plan, released by Mayor Greg Fischer in 2013, set a target date for that level of participation at 2025. Another goal of diverting 90 percent of solid waste from landfills is pegged to 2042. The study further elaborated on that, suggesting a vision of 90 percent of customers participating in programs that would result in the 90 percent landfill-diversion rate.
Flood said it will take buy-in from stakeholders as diverse as government and business owners to residents and homeowners associations to implement new programs, ordinances and methods that could lead to this kind of change.
And that will take a lot of education and marketing, one of three major recommendations in the study. Its authors also suggested introducing and enforcing new ordinances and contracts, as well as applying new service standards across the county. The cost of implementing these recommendations from 2016 to 2027 is estimated to be about $7.5 million, according to the study.
Flood said it is important to look for new technologies and methods that would help divert even more materials from landfill than is possible now. And he said there could be economic benefits to doing that.
“Change doesn’t always have to be more expensive. Change to divert more could lead to savings,” he said. “We have to, whenever we’re making decisions to divert more, also look at the economics behind it and to make it as efficient and divert as much as possible.”