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How the Greenest Cities in the World Clean Up Their Trash

More trash means more money wasted and more resources used up. Here are a few ways to clean up a waste stream.


The greenest city in the world, depending on who you ask, might be San Francisco, California, or Curitiba, Brazil, or Copenhagen, Denmark, or Vancouver, Canada. These cities and others like them have freed their citizens from car-dependency, switched to clean energy, and made room for green spaces that let everyone breath a little freer. But one key function they’ve also worked hard on? How to deal with their trash.

It’s convenient to think of the trash can as a black hole into which scraps and discards and mistakes disappear. But these cities know better. Producing more trash means wasting more money and using up more resources that could be put to better use. Here are a few lessons from some of the greenest cities in the world on taking out the trash.


Waste has worth. Before tossing that piece of trash, consider: Is it really so useless that it needs to be thrown out? The smartest cities have realized that much of what’s considered waste can actually be a resource. Curitiba, for instance, has a municipal shepherd whose flock takes care of the lawns in its extensive park system. In any other city what would be a pile of grass clippings headed off to a landfill, there becomes food. In places like Singapore and Murcia, Spain, waste gets turned into energy. Curitiba also recognizes the value in keeping the city clean: a municipal program will trade a bag of food for a bag of trash, which helps manage waste in lower-income neighborhoods. (Mexico City just started a similar initiative.)

Use less. To avoid dealing with trash, don’t create as much to begin with. When Singapore decided to start improving its waste situation, the city worked with packaging companies to minimize the amount of waste its citizens would need to dispose of.

Make rules. San Francisco leads the country in “landfill avoidance”—it sends only about a quarter of the waste it creates to the dump. The city managed this incredible feat by setting goals and the laying down rules to ensure that they were met. In 2002, the city’s Board of Supervisors decided that by the decade’s end 75 percent of all waste would be diverted from the landfill. But in 2009, although more waste than ever was being recycled and composted, it didn’t look like San Francisco would make its goal. So the city enacted a simple rule: Every property in the city needed to separate its waste into trash, recyclables and compostables. The city still didn’t quite meet the goal, but with an unheard of 72 percent rate of waste diversion, it’s hard to criticize the effort.

These concepts can apply not only to cities, but to individual households. Those vegetable scraps you usually throw away can be used to make stock. Investing in a growler means that beer bottles won’t pile up in the recycling. And just like San Francisco, anyone can make it a house rule to separate waste into three streams.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user arnold | inuyaki

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