With the release of the United Nations’ most recent climate report, a code-red warning is yet another striking reminder that the impacts of climate change are worsening. Severe weather events and natural disasters that once were rare are now intensifying throughout the world—we can no longer chalk it up to another “bad year.”
We know that climate change is human-driven. Humans alone must bear responsibility for tipping the scale toward environmental justice and sustainability. For those wanting to make a difference, it’s easy to feel lost, overwhelmed, or anxious considering our uncertain future on this planet and the devastation that communities are experiencing due to global warming.
A solution is closer to home, simpler, and can have more impact than you might think. It’s waste diversion — reducing our reliance on landfills through composting and recycling.
When you throw something away, where exactly is away? Too often, we toss things into our trash cans without thinking about the big impact of that small action. In Denver, most of our waste (primarily food and yard waste) is sent off to landfills and hidden out of sight, underground.
When organic material is buried in landfills, it rots slowly and without oxygen, releasing significant amounts of methane gas. If organic material instead is composted, decomposition happens with oxygen, producing carbon dioxide. Methane gas emitted from landfills is an extremely potent contributor to climate change, with more than 28 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.
Not only does composting reduce emissions of potent climate pollutants, it has a tremendous ability to sequester carbon. Once processed, compost is a powerful soil additive that returns nutrients, introduces beneficial microbes, improves water retention, and pulls carbon from the atmosphere. Composting also can create green jobs and lessen our reliance on harmful fertilizers.
Colorado often stands out as a leader in addressing climate, but our failure to reduce waste is a wasted opportunity. Colorado has a dismal landfill diversion rate of only 15.9 percent, lagging far behind the national average of 32.1 percent. We cannot continue to trash our beautiful state.
Our waste in landfills is worsening the climate crisis, but our waste as compost is a valuable part of the solution. According to Colorado’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, waste diversion in 2019 alone reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 1.92 million metric tons, which is the equivalent of, over a year’s time, removing 407,000 cars from the road for a year, or removing 148,000 homes from the grid, or conserving 113 million gallons of gasoline. Just imagine: There is enormous potential to lessen our impact by increasing our waste diversion rate.
What we do with our waste matters, but landfill-diversion strategies often are overlooked in policies designed to reduce our climate impact. In Denver, businesses are not required to compost or recycle, even though they generate about 55 percent of the city’s waste. Another significant barrier in Denver is that municipal composting and recycling is restricted to residences with seven units or fewer, meaning that most apartment tenants do not have access to these services at all. In fact, only about 9 percent of households in Denver are enrolled in municipal composting services.
Managers of large apartment complexes could choose to provide recycling and composting for tenants, but because trash service is cheaper, that’s typically all they provide. Conscious residents must travel to a drop-off facility or arrange for their own service through a private company, such as Next Use, which I co-founded (full disclosure: I’m one of those green jobs).
Recycling and composting should not be an option left to the landlord. Instead, tenants should expect to have these services available, so they can responsibly divert waste from landfills and lessen their impact. Denver should follow the lead of cities such as San Francisco that mandate the availability of composting and recycling, and reap the immense benefits that waste diversion offers.
Waste has been managed the same way for decades in Denver, with only incremental improvements. It’s 2021—time to change the status quo. In the absence of action by local and state governments to re-think our reliance on landfills, we need bold action.
In Denver, the community-led Waste No More initiative is working hard to turn our serious waste problem into a serious opportunity to rein in climate pollution. It would require apartment buildings, condos, restaurants, hospitals, hotels and sporting arenas to make composting and recycling services available to their tenants, customers, patients, and guests. It also would mandate responsible disposal of all construction and demolition waste.
Waste No More is in its final days of collecting signatures to get on Denver’s 2022 municipal-election ballot. You can help: Reach out at www.wastenomoredenver.org and be a part of the solution.
The individual action of composting and recycling, when multiplied by residents and businesses across the city, really can make a difference. Let’s stop wasting our waste, and instead divert it away from landfills to make progress toward a cleaner environment for all.
This column was updated on Aug. 14 at 12:33 p.m. to correct the date of the upcoming Denver municipal election. The election is scheduled for 2022, not 2021.
Steven Winterbach, a student at the CU-Boulder Leeds School of Business, is co-founder of Next Use Recycling and Composting.