Diversion: How to Keep Waste Out of Landfills

Humans have a problem with waste. Most of the time, we don’t know what to do with it, and so we pile it up in landfills. Out of sight, out of mind is a nice principle, but it only goes so far. Whether we’re looking or not, waste in landfills is breaking down, emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, seeping pollutants into soil and ground water, and disturbing ecosystems which are bulldozed in order to make room for more junk. If we follow this produce-consume-dispose pattern to its logical conclusion, the Earth will be covered in garbage. What can we do to avoid this? Enter diversion.

What is Diversion and Why Do It?

In the context of waste management, diversion describes the act of redirecting waste from landfills to some other point, typically recycling, but other options exist like reuse or repurposing. Even when this isn’t the case, diverting waste has significant environmental benefits over landfilling. First, diverting waste means less garbage in landfills, and this brings the associated benefits of fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less contribution to soil and water pollution. Second, recycling or repurposing existing materials means that there is less need to extract and produce new materials, meaning less industrial pollution. Consider, for example, the case of food waste.

Banana peels, bread crusts, and shrimp tails sitting in a landfill will break down in uncontrolled conditions alongside other types of waste, resulting in chemical reactions that produce methane gas. Those same peels, crusts, and tails decomposing separately (i.e. in compost) will produce carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide and methane are both greenhouse gases, methane is twenty times as potent as carbon dioxide. In this case, diverting food waste to compost not only produces useful fertilizer, but also has an automatic environmental benefit.

As if this weren’t enough, diverting certain materials can be a revenue stream for prudent businesses—more on that in a moment.

A Promising Trend

In light of these strong benefits, municipalities, states, and nations are getting on board with waste diversion. In the United States, for example, federal agencies are required to divert at least 50% of non-hazardous waste annually and must pursue opportunities for net-zero waste or additional diversion activities.

To assist businesses, organizations, such as Zero Waste International Alliance, have sprung up to certify businesses’ diversion efforts. These certifications could be quite valuable in today’s social climate, with consumers becoming increasingly interested in the efforts that businesses are taking to curb pollution and combat climate change.

While anyone who recycles is already engaging in diversion, the global community seems to be moving toward the far end of the continuum, which is known as Zero Waste. In order to qualify as “zero waste”, an entity must divert 90% of its waste, meaning that less than 10% is sent to the landfill. While this might seem far-fetched, technology is providing more and more solutions that make zero waste seem possible. Many of these technologies are already at play in the market and provide a range of methods by which waste can be kept out of landfills.

The Many Faces of Diversion

There are a number of ways in which to deal with diverted waste, with some methods being more sustainable than others. Within the following list, you’ll note that there are some methods of waste diversion (arguably among the most effective) which can be undertaken by any individual, while others require complex processes and technology. The most widely used methods are as follows:

  • Source Reduction: The logic here is as simple as it sounds—if we can reduce the sources of waste, there will be less waste, and therefore less waste will end up in landfills. And what are the sources of waste? Production and consumption. The most effective methods of source reduction are therefore opting for more sustainable options where available (using electronic files as opposed to print, for example) or streamlining supply chains. Proper maintenance of items such as footwear and car tires can be valuable contributions to source reduction.
  • Return to Supplier: Return to supplier products divert items from landfills by returning them to the original supplier to be reused. Beer kegs, propane tanks, batteries and the glass milk bottles of yore are examples of this. Such arrangements are becoming increasingly popular, as they are more economical for the consumer and clear up space at landfills.
  • Recycling: Recycling is the most popular method of waste diversion and comes in many forms. While not all materials are eligible for recycling, it is very efficient with some materials, such as paper (making it the most commonly diverted material in the world). Innovative new methods are promising to make the diversion by recycling of even more material possible in the near future
  • Biological Treatment: These processes employ microorganisms to break waste down to useful or at least natural elements. Composting is the most widely known technique and can be performed in your backyard. Anaerobic digestion is the other main technique, which requires the absence of oxygen. We are familiar with this form of biological treatment in the fermentation of foods. This is a very promising process, due not only to its effectiveness, but also to the fact that it can be used to produce biogas, a renewable energy source.
  • Incineration: Essentially, burning garbage. In recent years, significant technological and regulatory developments have relieved many concerns surrounding the practice, and incineration is once again looking promising as a method of waste diversion. Similar to biological treatment, incinerating waste can be a source of renewable energy.

The Business Behind Diversion

Waste diversion comes in many forms and offers an array of benefits, not least of which is less garbage piling up at landfills. Another somewhat surprising benefit is that diversion could mean more profit for your business. Many metals, plastics, electronic components, and other materials eligible for diversion hold value as commodities, and there are companies who need these materials in their production processes. Believe it or not, certain companies are willing to pay for these recyclable materials, and if the cost of transporting said materials to these companies is less than the price they would pay, that means profit for the intrepid diverter. By failing to explore opportunities to link your waste stream to interested businesses, you might be missing out on revenue, even if your staff are taking the time to separate recyclables.

Unfortunately, despite the abundance of environmental and economic benefits, some major players in the waste management industry do not actively pursue options to divert. Why? Diversion requires sorting, sorting requires resources (staff, machinery, energy, etc.) and these resources cost money. Conversely, a waste management company that owns its own landfills does not have a vested interest in diverting what could be recycled. They would rather charge customers the higher landfill rates they set to use their own landfills. In addition, they benefit from increased volume in their landfills as this lowers their operating cost per unit of waste. These companies have little incentive to link their clients with companies interested in their waste materials. This is how tons of recyclable material ends up in landfills each year. Many states tax haulers on landfilled waste in order to discourage excessive dumping, but in some cases—especially in states where these taxes are not imposed—this is not enough to stop the practice.

At National Waste Associates, we don’t work like that. We have an extensive network of haulers and we keep our options open. Diverting waste when possible is in our contract and we monitor our suppliers to ensure that they are fulfilling our agreement. If we find that our haulers are not following best practices with regards to diversion, we go back to market and work with someone who is—it’s as simple as that. Any profits earned through diversion are then passed onto the client, you.

Don’t throw money away. Get in touch to learn more about how National Waste Associates can help you do more with your waste. We believe in making sustainable choices, and that one man’s trash could very well be that same man’s profit.