Columbia works toward being more sustainable

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COLUMBIA - When you put something in the trash, throw something out your car window or put something down the garbage disposal, you often don’t think about where that trash goes. This is what an employee of Columbia’s Office of Sustainability said when talking about waste in Columbia.

According to the EPA, Americans generated about 258 million tons of trash in 2014. Over 89 million tons of that waste were recycled and composted, which is equal to a 34.6 percent recycling rate. The rest of the waste goes to landfills, where it stays until it is compacted or covered.

Columbia uses a bioreactor landfill, which speeds and enhances the process of waste stabilization compared to a conventional landfill. However, there are still problems with this type of landfill: there are increased potential for gas emissions because of its speed, there is increased potential for odors in the area and the landfill’s protective liner could fail due to extra weight of the liquids used to speed the process.

Michael Heimos works with the Office of Sustainability to educate residents and businesses on topics like landfills and how to manage your waste more efficiently. He also helps organize trash cleanups, like Cleanup Columbia on April 14. 

“You have to think about all the trash, all the things that we create and where those things end up.” Heimos said. “They end up in the landfill if you don’t recycle them, and the space that that takes could be reduced by thinking more sustainably and making a conscious effort at a local level.”

The Office of Sustainability says a community is sustainable when it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Heimos says to create a safer environment and to reduce the amount of trash in our streets and landfill, it's important to use other ways to manage waste.

“This is it; this is the one place," he said. "We all have to use it, and we need to leave a good mark with clean and safe air and streets. I think sustainable practices are a very big part of that."

The Office of Sustainability focuses on educating residents and businesses on two other ways to manage waste: recycling and composting. 

Some local businesses, like La Siesta and Nourish, practice waste management methods like these, joining the efforts of the Office of Sustainability in creating less waste.

La Siesta stopped providing straws with their drinks, saying in a Facebook post "Though we are only a pair of restaurants in Mid-Missouri, we will do our part to not add to the non-biodegradable waste that these straws produce."

Nourish co-owner Kalle Lemone said being a sustainable business is the only option for her and her business partner. Lemone said the cafe barely produces a bag of trash each day. The trash consists of items left by customers or from the packaging of products they order. The rest of their waste is either composted or recycled. 

“We decided to compost because not everyone will finish all the food on their plate, and it’s painful for us to see such high quality food going to waste," Lemone said. "With putting it back in the environment, you’re just continuing to add the nutrients to other food that will grow."

Compost is organic material made from decomposed matter that can be added to soil to help plants grow. According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste currently make up 20 to 30 percent of what Americans throw away, and making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Nourish composts 100% of its food waste. Each week it uses five bins outside to store composted food, which are picked up by the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture and used to enrich soil. The cafe uses recyclable and biodegradable straws, to-go containers and plastic cups to reduce the rest of their waste. 

Lemone said Columbia does a good job of making it possible to be sustainable with your waste. She said the easiest thing residents and businesses can do is recycle,  and everyone can make an effort to waste less.

“I think people just don’t know the total impact or they think, 'My little part doesn’t matter,' but it really does all add up," Lemone said. "Especially when you have a business, it’s a responsibility to everyone else to do your part."

Sierra Smith represents the residential side of waste management. She started composting her food waste last year, and she said it's been an easy way to be conscious of the waste she's producing. 

Smith said she wants more people to be educated on what sustainability is. She used to think that she couldn't make a difference on her own. Now, she feels good about doing her part, and she wants other residents to realize this as well. 

"Just evaluate your life, and see where you can make change," Smith said. "Little things you can cut out, like not using plastic water bottles or just throwing them away, just taking little steps to really make a difference.”

On April 14, more than 1,000 local residents worked to pick up trash and litter at Cleanup Columbia. Heimos said littering is the easiest form of waste to avoid, and even putting items in the trash to go to the landfill is a more beneficial method to manage waste. 

"If you have trash, throw it away. If you have trash and the trash is recyclable recycle it," Heimos said. "Just those small little steps, those small little endeavors, make a huge impact."

You can learn more about composting and recycling on the Office of Sustainability's website. To start recycling, check out the "waste wizard" feature on the website; you can find a recycling collection schedule near you, and you can search what items to recycle and where. The Office of Sustainability will host a compost workshop on April 22, where you can learn how and why composting is beneficial.