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Zero Waste Ambitions: An Interview with Murray Myers of Dallas Sanitation Services

If you live in Dallas you have probably heard that the City hopes to achieve Zero Waste by 2040. But what exactly is “zero waste” and how are we going to get there? To find out more about it, I reached out to Murray Myers, the Zero Waste Manager at Dallas Sanitation Services, to see if he’d be willing to teach us more about it.

The Zero Waste team is responsible for community outreach, commercial recycling, and other programs such as household hazardous waste collection, Recycling Round-Ups, electronics recycling, and the many recycling drop-off sites and events. This interview was conducted by email.

Cary Birdwell: I must admit that when I first heard the term zero waste I think I laughed out loud. It’s not that I am against the concept of reducing or even eliminating waste, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m serious about recycling, but I can think of so many things that cannot be reused or are not worth the effort of recycling: old rubber bands, the metal coil on a spiral notebook, a torn lamp shade, and a broken vacuum cleaner make up just a few items on a very long list.

Again, it’s not that I think it’s a bad idea that these things could potentially be repurposed or recycled, it’s just that I’m very skeptical that it’s cost effective.

So what, in short, is this thing called Zero Waste?

Murray Myers: Actually, you can put that metal coil in the scrap metal recycling bin at a transfer station, but I understand your point. It’s difficult to reach Zero Waste. Zero Waste is a lifestyle where you strive for sustainability and incorporate the 5 R’s (no longer the 3 R’s) into what you do.

  • Refuse – don’t get an extra pair of shoes if you don’t need them

  • Reduce – be mindful of how you shop at the grocery store so that you’re only buying things you’ll eat

  • Reuse – donate items or repair them so that they can be reused (e.g. repair the lamp shade)

  • Recycle – recycle paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, cartons, glass and metal cans

  • Rot – compost at home and put your rotten food to work for you

Reaching Zero Waste may be difficult, but it’s possible. Fortune 500 companies have reached zero waste and San Francisco is getting there. Their diversion rate is close to 80% (i.e. 80% of the waste they generate is diverted from the landfill).

CB: I’m one of those oddballs who actually reads about recycling quite a bit, but not everyone has the time or inclination to do so. Can you briefly explain to us why waste diversion is better than landfilling trash?

MM: Recycling conserves resources, it prevents pollution, saves energy and creates jobs. It requires a lot of resources to create a soda can from scratch (e.g. exploring and discovering aluminum ore, mining for aluminum, transporting the ore, processing it, then creating the can) but if you recycle it, it can be back on the store shelf in 30 days. If you allow it to go to the landfill then it’s a resource that goes to waste and you’ll never get it back. Aluminum and other materials are a finite resource. We only have one planet.

CB: Are the zero waste goals saving taxpayers money, or costing us more in comparison to just landfilling the waste? Does it generate revenue for the City?

MM: Recycling does generate revenue for the City and that revenue is used to offset the costs of collection. As the City moves closer to Zero Waste, there could be some additional costs for programs like organics collection. Diverting food waste and yard waste is key to increasing the diversion rate, but it requires education, containers, collection and processing. We’re currently evaluating how to implement a cost effective organics program.

CB: I realize that apartments and condos face some challenges when it comes to availability and access to recycling services in Dallas, but it seems like most everyone who lives in a single-family home has a blue recycling cart these days. Is recycling in Dallas mandatory?

MM: 80% of Dallas households have a recycling roll cart. Recycling is not mandatory but with our outreach we encourage recycling and show why it’s important through social media, local publications, water bill inserts, schools, and events.

Recycling is not required for multifamily properties but there is a section in the Zero Waste Plan that stipulates if recycling is not voluntarily increased, the City Council will consider adopting a universal recycling ordinance (URO) which would make it mandatory for apartments to provide recycling.

CB: I know from experience that home recycling can require a lot of time and attention to do correctly. You really have to pay attention to what’s what when you’re either trashing or recycling something, you often have to separate materials from packages, and make sure containers are empty.

And, well, people being people, I suspect that a great deal of the time materials are not being sorted correctly, and a lot of things that weren’t supposed to be put in the blue bins end up there anyhow (or vice versa). So what are some of the biggest challenges that the city faces when it comes to the residential recycling program?

MM: About 19% of what’s put in the recycling roll carts (or your Recycle Ben) is contamination or trash. The most common forms of contamination are plastic film, Styrofoam and shredded paper. There’s an easy search tool on which will show Dallas residents where they can take certain items like plastic bags, shredded paper, clothes and batteries for recycling.

For us, it’s difficult to explain why some of these items aren’t recyclable in a quick sound bite. Items like plastic bags and shredded paper require more time to explain because we need to describe what happens at the recycling facility. Most people aren’t willing to give us more than a few seconds.

There are a few questions we receive frequently: bottle caps, half-full (or half empty) bottles, aluminum foil, pizza boxes. The answers are: leave bottle caps on the bottle, empty all liquids from the container, aluminum foil can contain food waste so leave it out, and recycle the top half that’s clean and compost the bottom.

CB: Why is food waste such a problem? I mean, does it really matter if there is still a bit of soda in a bottle, or some unwanted potato salad in a plastic tub?

MM: Food waste in small quantities may seem ok, but when you multiply that by 241,000 households it adds up to a lot of contamination. For example, if every household left just one ounce of soda in one can when they recycled it, it would add up to over 1,880 gallons of soda. That liquid contaminants the recyclables and when it comes into contact with a material like paper or cardboard, it can degrade it. That means it’s less valuable to the market and it becomes harder to recycle that item. Recycling doesn’t exist if there’s no market to purchase and reuse the materials.

CB: If plastic bags are just plastic, why can’t they be recycled right along with other forms of plastic waste?

MM: If plastic bags or film are missed in the early part of the sorting process then they can get stuck in the sorting screens which damages the machinery. Imagine vacuuming with hundreds of pieces of string or floss stuck in the brush roll. It gets more difficult to vacuum and eventually the device will break down. Well, once a day, the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) has to shut down so that people can cut the plastic film out of the sorting screens.

Most sorting machinery is designed to capture and sort plastic bottles and containers. There are some MRFs that can sort plastic film but once the plastic film is dirty, it has very little value and it’s difficult to find a market for it. It’s best to take plastic film and bags to a local grocery store.

CB: What constitutes household hazardous waste, and why can’t it be just tossed in the trash?

MM: Any product containing a chemical, hazardous element (e.g. mercury) or any man-made element can be considered household hazardous waste. This includes items like bathroom cleaners, batteries, electronics, paint and oil. If these items are thrown in the trash and they enter the landfill, it could leach into the environment which is bad for waterways, local wildlife and the community.

There are monthly opportunities to safely dispose of Batteries, motor Oil, latex Paint and Antifreeze at local BOPA events. There is also a Household Hazardous Waste Collection Center on 11234 Plano Road where Dallas residents can drop off HHW for free.

CB: What happens when recycling isn’t done correctly? For example, the city does not take shredded paper and food scraps. But what happens when the collection truck runs across a blue bin filled with perfectly good recyclables mixed up with loose shredded paper and week-old spaghetti?

MM: It can contaminate a large portion of the recycling load. Food waste or anything wet has the potential to spread to other materials in the truck and degrade recyclables. If it’s bad enough, the entire load may have to be sent to the landfill. Shredded paper usually falls through small spaces in the machinery and contaminates materials like glass.

CB: It seems to me that I’ve heard something about Dallas expanding into food waste collection and composting in the future, but how would something like that be done, especially for residential areas?

MM: There are a lot of obstacles to organics collection in Dallas. Almost half of the households are serviced in the alley where the alley is degrading and narrow. This makes it really difficult to fit a third roll cart and it puts additional stress on the alley with a third truck. In DFW, there are only a few composting sites and even fewer which will accept food waste. As you can imagine, food waste introduces a lot of contamination into the composting process. Also, when you look at local cities that are collecting a third organics roll cart, you’ll find that most people aren’t using it for food waste . . . and that’s primarily what we want to divert. We’re currently evaluating how to collect organics in an effective way.

CB: Are you familiar with Recycle Bank, the website that partners with municipalities and waste collectors to track recycling rates so that individuals who participate in their city’s recycling program can earn points for recycling? What are the chances that the City of Dallas might partner with this program in the future?

MM: We’ve evaluated programs like Recyclebank and Recycling Perks but they would need to be cost effective for the City. Since Dallas has over 241,000 households, it starts to get expensive.

CB: Great, thank you Murray. This has been a fun and informative interview. I appreciate your time.

MM: Thank you for having me! We appreciate all of your help out there. We feel like you’re a part of the Zero Waste team!

(Click link to download your Dallas Recycling Guide. )


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