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Toward Building Your Garbology Profile

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“Going through your garbage like a pack of hounds,

Speculating what they may find out,

It don’t matter now,

You’re all washed up.”

The lyric, from an old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hit, is about the humiliation of a fallen celebrity rocked by scandal. It could also be about you.

By Leslee Kulba-At Tuesday’s meeting of Asheville City Council, Mayor Esther Manheimer told about her attendance that morning at a kick-off event for recycling. Coke and Ingle’s markets are partnering with the city in what is known as the Coca-Cola Recycle & Win program. In the next few days, citizens will be receiving a flyer from the city hyping up the recycling initiative.

Included in the mailer will be a list of recyclable items and a special sticker. Citizens who slap the sticker on their recycling bins will be inviting secret snoopers to inspect the contents to verify they are compliant with the city’s list of recyclables. People found compliant will then be eligible to win a $50 gift card from the city. A total of 260 cards will be awarded. If it’s any consolation, the rubbish-rummagers will be cruising around in a Prius.

Chief Sustainability Officer Maggie Ullman stressed that the program would seek only to positively reinforce behaviors. Nobody would be getting a letter from the city shaming them for what they or their mischievous neighbors may have non-compliantly deposited in the Big Blue containers.

But during council’s evening meeting, Manheimer shared something she learned at Harvard’s New Mayors’ School. “Some Harvard professor” had led a study that concluded people respond better to being shamed. For example, people who receive a letter from the city telling them they are not recycling as well as their neighbors are highly likely to become more conscientious recyclers. Adding a frowny face increases compliance. The same study showed that citizens receiving a letter with a smily face saying they are better than most, tends to make them slack off.

Ullman stressed to council that she was only reporting proposed strategies for reducing residential waste. She would have to come before council cap-in-hand before the city funded anything.

One of the main problems was the city wanted to save tipping fees at the landfill. Buncombe County’s landfill was expected to be filled up by 2026, but, due to the recession, consumerism and construction slowed enough to extend the life of the landfill another decade or so.

Even so, siting a landfill is never a pleasant process for anybody. Councilman Jan Davis recalled some of the woes of the last ordeal. Former Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley said he never wanted to go through the arduous process of trying to get people to agree to having it in their backyard. Davis said by the time Asheville needs another landfill, there may not be a place to put it. Then, the city will have to export its trash, at great expense, somewhere that somebody else doesn’t want it.

In a waste audit conducted last year, the city determined 18 percent of what was going into the green bins was recyclable, and 26 percent could be composted. In other words, the city could divert 44 percent of its waste stream out of the landfill. The tossings in Asheville’s trash bins, in turn, are responsible for 16 percent of the contents of the landfill.

Ullman said the plan to reduce the city’s landfill tipping fees was at odds with Buncombe County’s interests. The county runs the landfill as an enterprise fund. That is, the more trash, the merrier. Ullman said the city and county had to negotiate the waste reduction program as a win-win proposal. She asked the county how the city could move its refuse “across the county’s scales,” but deposit it in a more environmentally-friendly place. That is how the city and county started working together to develop a composting site.

After looking at what other cities were doing, the city decided to reduce its total residential waste tonnage by 50 percent of 2010 levels by the year 2035. The goal was less ambitious than, for example, Austin Texas’ 90 percent by 2040.

Ullman explained that the roles and responsibilities and levels of engagement of cities in different phases of trash collection vary too much to make meaningful across-the-board comparisons. Cities also have different needs and priorities. Talking like a good old-fashioned engineer, demonstrating an understanding of the limits of applied statistics, defining all terms, and proposing pragmatic objectives; Ullman stressed the need to “measure what matters.”

The resolution council unanimously approved only committed the city to a schedule for reducing landfill tonnage, engaging the public with education and outreach, and loosely giving a nod on a Long-Term Waste Reduction Plan. The plan includes commonsense ideas like getting more trash cans on the sidewalks downtown. It also proposes controversial actions like implementing a Pay-As-You-Throw program. With PAYT, garbage trucks could be equipped with scales that run up a tab on bar-coded bins.

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