THE MEDIA: Social media.
WHO SAID IT: Greg Stanton.
TITLE: Mayor of Phoenix.
THE COMMENT: “New stats show major progress on our long term sustainability plan. PHX diversion rate at 30 percent w/ goal of 40 percent by 2020.”
THE FORUM: Twitter.
WHAT WE’RE LOOKING AT: Whether 30 percent of trash was diverted from landfills in Phoenix during the 2016-17 fiscal year.
ANALYSIS: By 2020, Phoenix hopes to recycle 40 percent of its waste that otherwise would go to the landfill. And by 2050, the city aims to have no waste go into landfills.
Those goals are part of Reimagine Phoenix, the city’s 2013 initiative to “transform trash into resources.”
Phoenix diverted 20 percent of its waste from landfills to recycling facilities in fiscal 2016, an increase from 16 percent in fiscal 2013. The city calculates the figures per fiscal year instead of calendar year.
According to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and other city officials, during fiscal 2017 (July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017) the city’s waste-diversion rate jumped to 30 percent — a 50 percent increase.
The diversion rate is the portion of the total amount of waste that is recycled or repurposed and, as a result, doesn’t end up in a landfill. It’s calculated by dividing the amount of diverted waste by the total waste produced by the city.
A higher diversion rate can have a big impact: Diverting waste “reduces disposal costs and the burden on landfills,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Phoenix’s Public Works Department, for fiscal 2017 the city diverted 268,127 tons out of 891,159 tons of waste. That amounts to diverting 30 percent of the city’s waste, the number Stanton cited.
“Materials diverted from municipal recycling include all recyclables collected from residential curbside blue barrels and other diversion such as green organics, biosolids, electronics, mattresses and appliances that are recycled at the transfer stations,” Public Works Assistant Director Joe Giudice said in an emailed statement. “Municipal solid waste represents recyclables, compost and garbage.”
How did the diversion rate jump to 30 percent after much smaller increases in previous years?
“We determined … that biosolids diversion should be included,” Giudice’s statement said.
The city had diverted biosolids, also known as sewage sludge, for years, but wasn’t including it in the diversion rate calculation.
Because Phoenix’s Water Services Department oversees biosolid recycling, Giudice said the Public Works Department hadn’t considered including it in the diversion rate when the goal was first set in 2013.
“We were thinking a bit myopically about what was going to the landfill at that time,” Giudice said.
“Our city wastewater utility has to divert biosolids (sludge) from the landfill and deliver that for agriculture as a fertilizer — this program has made the difference in our diversion rate being at 30 percent,” Giudice said.
Gary Liss, a California-based zero-waste consultant and president of Gary Liss Associates, said the EPA does not count biosolids as a “municipal solid waste.”
Since recycling in Arizona is voluntary, the state does not define diversion rates —including what should and should not count toward them — or track them.
“At this time there is no national standard protocol for how to measure waste diversion and cities are measuring diversion in different manners, often with unique considerations for their cities,” Giudice wrote.
Phoenix is pursuing diversion from the landfill regardless of the kind of waste, he added.
Rachel Oster, principal and owner of Diversion Strategies, an environmental consulting firm, said if the city is “recycling and composting (biosolids) into fertilizer,” it could represent a large portion of the diversion rate.
And because of the opening of a compost facility in April, the department has increased the amount of commercial food and yard waste that’s diverted, Giudice said.
Liss said diverting food and yard waste could “easily” increase the city’s diversion rate from 20 percent to 30 percent in a year.
BOTTOM LINE: While the numbers show Phoenix is making progress toward its waste-diversion goal, the recent jump reflects a change in how that’s calculated rather than any dramatic change in the amount of waste staying out of landfills. Phoenix has recycled biosolids for years but only last year began including it in its calculation of the city’s diversion rate.
THE FINDING: Two stars: Somewhat true, somewhat false.
Sources: Phoenix Diversion Recycling Programs Update to the city of Phoenix’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, Sept. 12, 2017; email correspondence with Brenda Yanez, the public information officer for the City of Phoenix Public Works Department; phone interview with Gary Liss, president of Gary Liss Associates; phone interview with Rachel Oster, principal and owner of Diversion Strategies; “Can Phoenix meet its recycling goal? Residents’ participation will be key,” Aug. 26, 2016, The Arizona Republic; the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste Diversion website.