Public works officials in Salt Lake County learned something interesting last year on the way to the landfill — people are more than willing to take advantage of opportunities to recycle their garbage, and that is good news for both the environment and the county's financial picture.
The county switched from a schedule of picking up recyclables every other week to a weekly pickup, and that has resulted in a noticeable increase in the amount of material sent to recycling facilities.
The increase means less tonnage left in landfills, translating to a significant economic benefit. The county pays about $26 a ton to deposit garbage in a landfill, while it receives about $20 a ton for materials that can be recycled. Last year, the county says it experienced a 10 percent increase in recycling compared to garbage collection.
Broken down, this means the 20,000 tons sent to recyclers instead of the landfill reduced overall collection costs by nearly $1 million, certainly helping to validate the decision to spend the money to double the number of scheduled pickups for paper, plastic and other recyclables.
The lesson here, applicable to other local governments, is in the category of "if you build it, they will come." In contrast to Salt Lake County, the city of Draper took over garbage collection in 2009 and switched recycling pickup from weekly to biweekly. Since then, Draper has seen a drop in the percentage of recyclable materials collected — a clear indication that availability and convenience is a key factor in whether people will make the effort to recycle.
That isn't the only factor. National surveys have shown that two-thirds of Americans want to do more to help the environment. Separating refuse into separate bins is a small but important act that helps satisfy that urge.
Despite the trend toward more recycling, the county estimates that about 59 percent of its garbage stream remains recyclable material. Were all of that to be collected separately, it would theoretically more than double the lifespan of the county's landfill.
The county understands that to propagate its nascent success, it needs to step up recycling awareness and education programs, which it will do in 2013. Salt Lake City also deserves praise for its recycling efforts; and its decision to initiate a glass-recycling program, which has yet to reach all neighborhoods.
Other governments should take heed. The basic formula for waste disposal is changing rapidly, and the chance to harvest greater amounts of recyclable material is an opportunity that shouldn't be left on the curb.