An International Perspective On Zero Waste

         Last summer I got the opportunity of a lifetime to study abroad in Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s most progressive cities. While holding onto Edinburgh’s rich history, the city continues to practice sustainability through the perfect balance between all things traditional and contemporary.

            I lived and attended school at the University of Edinburgh for five weeks with 14 fellow Ohio University students during summer 2011. The environmentally focused program, “Edinburgh: City and Environment,” touches on urban ecology, environmental history, and sustainable urban planning. According to program director Dr. Geoff Buckley, “With more than half the world’s population living ‘urban’ already, and the movement from rural to urban accelerating rapidly, it is imperative that we design our new cities, and retrofit our old ones, so that they are more efficient, just and livable places.”

            Edinburgh has a reputation as a leader in the worldwide effort to transform cities into “green” cities. With this reputation, I made observations of the differences between Edinburgh and Athens, Ohio. What I noticed most were the cities achievements in waste reduction and recycling management.

            Recycling is huge in Scotland. The city believes everyone should have the access and opportunity to recycle, so they have created facilities where the public can take their items, big or small. Our class took a field trip to one of Edinburgh’s recycling facilities, called the Educational Waste Cabin, unlike any door-to-door recycling program available in Athens, OH.

           The first thing I saw were large itemized metal bins that held refrigerators, TV’s, batteries, and whatever else you could possibly think of that is non-traditional. The facility also has created a warehouse to hold gently used items to donate to various organizations. The warehouse was a space where citizens could bring their unwanted furniture and other items for reuse within the community. The facility provides this instead of yard sales because they are illegal in Scotland.

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            One of the most exciting parts of the tour was when a large machine called “The Crusher” (which is exactly what it sounds like) came to compact one of the bins. This large machine had the looks of a giant spiked roller, which would smash and rotate the recyclables until they were packed tightly.  It was really neat to seeing “the crusher” in action, snapping a few pictures and a video.

           We learned this particular recycling facility is a very important part of the Edinburgh Council’s waste structure, as well as one of the most efficient in Europe. Scotland is determined to minimize waste to ZERO within the next five years with their “Zero Waste” policy, and is the first country in Europe to do so.

          Since I have returned from Edinburgh, I have learned Athens County has a “Zero Waste” initiative in place as well. When our “Zero Waste” Initiative began, recycling rates in the Athens-Hocking county waste district were at a mere 8.9%. By conducting a comprehensive feasibility study that included surveys of residents, community forums, and case study analyses, it was determined that the two driving causes were lack of access to recycling and lack of education. In some areas of the district, the only window of time for residents to recycle was a four hour period once a month when a truck stopped at a curb, said initiative Director Kyle O’Keefe. Since then, improvements have been made by placing permanent recycling bins in these locations.

              Furthermore, staff members are currently using results from the study to create a 10 year Zero Waste Action Plan with the ultimate goal to achieve zero waste in the Athens-Hocking County Waste District. The plan will be completed in December of 2013, and will address the challenges outlined by the feasibility study by developing strategies for education and outreach, infrastructure improvements, local and institutional policies, economic development, and natural resource preservation. Goals for the 10 year mark will also align with those outlined for waste reduction in Ohio University’s Sustainability Plan and Climate Action Plan.

                  I am glad to see Athens County recycling facilities are taking on challenging “Zero Waste” initiatives. These waste disposal practices can save money and can teach those to feel good about how they dispose of their waste in the proper and environmentally friendly way. Overall, I had a wonderful time during our visit to the Waste Education Cabin. I was able to make comparisons and reflections with Athens recycling habits in prospective to Edinburgh’s.

                 In retrospect, my experience studying abroad enlightened me in many ways. It showed me how others live their lives sustainably in other cultures. I also learned how an extremely old city could transform itself into one that will be there for many years to come because of their progressive sustainability efforts, while receiving a very rare perspective on international sustainability. My time in Scotland sparked a curiosity in me that I will continue to search for.

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