How America’s least sustainable city learned to love recycling
From Arlo Guthrie, who wrote a seven-minute song about taking out the garbage, to Shel Silverstein’s Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout, who drowned in her own garbage, our society has long struggled with the excesses of its own existence. Today, Americans hold the title of biggest trash producers in the world, at 6.5 pounds per person, per day. This problem is perhaps no more evident than in Phoenix, the fastest-growing city in the country.
In 2008, Phoenix was named the least sustainable city in the nation in Andrew Ross’s book Bird on Fire. Everyone in Phoenix really hated being called that. So when Greg Stanton became mayor later that year, he decided to focus on sustainability. (Stanton has since become a congressman, taking the seat left vacant by now-senator Kyrsten Sinema.) Water was one big piece of the sustainability puzzle, but garbage was the other. The challenge Stanton faced was reducing the amount of garbage Phoenix sent to the landfill without changing laws or imposing fines, both of which would have been impossible to get passed in the middle of a red state. The city would have to rely solely on changing human behavior. It was a tall order.
In the last 30 years, Phoenix has gone from a population of 900,000 to the fifth largest metropolis in the nation, with 1.6 million residents. An average of 100 people moves to Phoenix every day. And that growth is likely to continue—the population is expected to double in the next decade—as people flood in from other cities that have become too expensive, too congested, and too difficult for middle-class Americans to survive in. But new residents don’t just bring a moving van and a down payment on a single-level house with a cactus in the front yard. They also bring their trash.
Phoenix is home to five closed landfills that don’t include modern fire-damping technology, at least one of which is at risk of spontaneously combusting. They also leach toxic chemicals into the surrounding land and water, and one was declared a Superfund site. The land can’t be built on or farmed; it’s all geographic dead zones. The old landfills are markers of failures on the part of previous city governments, not only from an environmental standpoint, but in anticipating how fast and how far Phoenix would grow, and just how much garbage Phoenicians would produce.
The city’s new landfill, opened in 2006, is as high-tech as a hole in the ground can be, with liners to protect the water table, a GPS-based scheme that dictates where and how garbage gets deposited, and tubing that siphons out and burns off the methane that garbage produces as it decomposes. At 2,654 acres in area and 120 feet deep, the landfill should last the city at least another 60 years. But it’s also 60 miles outside city limits and requires long-haul trucks, making 100 to 125 trips a day, to transport all of Phoenix’s garbage. It isn’t hard to see a future where Phoenix—and other cities—start to run out of space. One estimate projects that remaining landfill space for the entire United States is likely to last only another 62 years. As big and empty as the Sonoran Desert is, there are only so many times you can dig a giant hole and fill it to the brim with used diapers and yard waste.
The bigger cities get, the more garbage they generate, and the harder it is to figure out what to do with all of it. Increasing what’s known as the diversion rate—the percentage of items that previously would have been flung in the trash but that could be recycled or composted—is an obvious first step. Phoenix officials were well aware, and perhaps a little jealous, of the diversion rates of other western states. San Francisco diverts 80% of its trash from the landfill, leading the nation and causing much competitive angst in Phoenix. (“We’re never going to be San Francisco,” Stanton tells me.) Seattle diverts nearly 60%. Both are well above the national average of 34%. And Phoenix? “Our diversion rate was shocking,” Stanton says. When he took office, it was 16%.
There are some tried-and-true strategies when it comes to increasing diversion rates, but most of them rely on passing laws or increasing fines. No one in Phoenix was under the illusion that those methods would work in their town. Take what had happened with the plastic bag ban in Bisbee, everyone told me. In 2012, the town of Bisbee, an artsy place just north of the Mexican border, passed an ordinance banning plastic bags. Three years later, as a direct result of Bisbee’s intolerable act, the Arizona state legislature passed a statewide ban on plastic bag bans.
There would also be no fining of Phoenix residents for not recycling, a strategy that has been a linchpin of many city recycling strategies. Fines would never get through the city council. Neither would increasing the amount residents pay to have their recycling picked up. No matter—Phoenix would figure out a way. And the person that job fell to—the job of raising Phoenix’s diversion without passing any laws or increasing prices—was Ginger Spencer.
“LET’S TALK TRASH!”
Nothing in Ginger Spencer’s background indicated that she would be the person primarily responsible for figuring out what to do with the volumes of trash that her fellow Phoenicians produce. Spencer started her career as a social worker, but as a single mother, she craved stability and benefits. So she returned home to Phoenix (Spencer is a rare native Phoenician) and took an internship with the city manager’s office, eventually moving to a role in arts administration.
Today, she can drive through the city and wave to the places she’s had a hand in creating. A center for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Arizona Opera building. The new wing of the Phoenix Theater. The Ballet Arizona school. Spencer is the personification of “can-do attitude,” which was essential, given that Stanton wanted to more than double the city’s diversion rate in seven years, with no budget or legislative changes.
He tapped Spencer to head the solid waste program at Public Works in 2013. She clearly relishes her role as the city’s garbage lady in chief, beginning our first interview with an enthusiastic, “Let’s talk trash!”
In order to increase the diversion rate, the first thing Spencer and her team needed to understand was what was in Phoenix’s trash and how much of it could be put to other uses. Spencer commissioned a Waste Characterization Study, which looked at the makeup of the city’s garbage. The study found that nearly 75% of the things people threw away could be recycled, composted, or repurposed if the right structures were in place. This included things such as cardboard boxes or cans, for which there was already a recycling program, but also bags full of yard waste.
Spencer and her team went over each item to figure out what could be done to remove it from people’s garbage cans.
“It’s not only line by line,” explains Patricia Reiter, the director of strategic initiatives at Arizona State University’s Global Futures Lab, which has partnered with Phoenix to help find markets for items that would otherwise be buried in the landfill. “Sometimes it’s by the polymer.”
What she means is that there are some types of plastic that have a market and others that don’t. When I went to Phoenix last March, China had just announced it would not be taking any more of a certain type of plastic from the United States, sending shock waves through the recycling community. But because the city didn’t want to complicate an already complex process, Phoenix was still allowing residents to put those plastics in their recycling bin. With no market for those plastics, they stacked up in neatly baled rectangles at Phoenix’s recycling plants, while the team desperately looked around to see who might take them. Now, a year later, the city is negotiating a deal with Renew PHX to build a local facility that can turn low-grade plastics into fuel, which will then power Phoenix’s public works fleet.
The plastics situation had presented a new crisis, but the first thing Phoenix chose to deal with was the massive amount of yard waste residents were throwing out. Spencer’s team tested out placing tan containers meant exclusively for grass and tree trimmings in neighborhoods that produced the most yard waste. The program went well, but the city soon found palm fronds to be the bane of its existence—34,000 tons of them, in fact. Yard waste can easily be composted or mulched, but not palm fronds. So Phoenix’s city manager put out a call for help.
Which is how Phoenix connected with Palm Silage, a company that—until last year—took the city’s discarded palm fronds, combined them with dates, and turned them into feed for horses, cows, and pygmy goats. But even though Phoenix now had a reason to get palm fronds out of the landfill, the landscapers who carted most of the palm fronds around the city had no incentive to separate them from other yard waste and drive them to Palm Silage. Spencer’s team worked on solving this puzzle, but ultimately, the program was deemed not cost-effective and was terminated.
Figuring out how to deal with mattresses is another challenge that Spencer has had to address.
“Mattresses are like the problem children of the landfill,” Spencer says. “They sit forever, and they take up a lot of space.”
The city developed a partnership with Goodwill to recycle mattresses. Goodwill designed a machine that could break down Phoenix’s discarded mattresses, sanitize them, and turn them into doggie beds. But once the program got going, it turned out that there weren’t enough good-quality mattresses (read: not bedbug infested, overly used, or filthy) to send to Goodwill to make it cost-effective. The city had to reject 20%-25% of tossed mattresses, so the two agreed to part ways. Even so, the pilot diverted 14,300 mattresses from the landfill over three years. “Now Goodwill does have technology,” Spencer points out. “So maybe it might live another day.”
The city continues to partner with Goodwill to reduce its trash. It recently launched a curbside collection program for clothing and other textiles that can be sold in Goodwill stores. The city is also working on keeping construction materials out of the landfill. It recently launched a “deconstruction program,” which pairs building permit applicants with nonprofits that collect the old building parts and then reuse or sell them. The donors, meanwhile, can claim a tax credit.
FROM “WISHFUL RECYCLING” TO LESS CONTAMINATION
Contamination is a big buzzword in the world of garbage. In 2013, when Phoenix began thinking about sustainability, the city had a 30% contamination rate, which means that 30% of the items people put in recycling bins weren’t actually recyclable. Recycling is complicated, and different rules apply in different locales. Especially given the rate at which new people arrive in Phoenix, Spencer’s team knew they needed to simplify their messages about recycling and composting in order to reduce contamination.
I got a chance to see the contamination firsthand at one of Phoenix’s recycling plants. Plastic bags are one of the nonrecyclable things people love to try to recycle (the industry term for this is “wishful recycling”). At the recycling plant, errant plastic bags clog up the machinery, wind around the tines of the sorters, and often bring the entire process to a halt. They must be individually removed by gloved staffers. It’s quite something to watch Amazon box after Amazon box chugging up the conveyor belt followed by a crushed case of soda cans and other unidentifiable cardboard, and then spot a trapped plastic bag fluttering up the chute, about to bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.
Initially, Spencer’s team adapted Keep America Beautiful’s “Top Ten in the Bin” mantra for Phoenix’s trash. The campaign lists the top 10 things Phoenix residents should recycle, including plastic bottles, pizza boxes, and aluminum cans. But even 10 items can be hard to remember, Spencer admits, and while the number of things being recycled increased, so did the level of contamination.
Spencer’s team knew they had to try a different tactic to get more of the right things into recycling bins. Which is how they hit on the idea of grading people’s recycling.
The Oops Shine On Program launched as a pilot in 2018, with solid waste workers inspecting people’s recycling in the most contaminated sections of the city and leaving report cards. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for seasoned workers to open a curbside recycling bin, scan it, and leave a little note. The day I tagged along, the first few houses were done before I’d even found my notebook.
Working in teams of two, the Oops team pulls up to a house, rifles quickly through the recycling, and then fills out the report card: a red “Oops” note, which says which items in the bin can’t be recycled, along with a handwritten explanation of where the bin went wrong; or a green “Shine On,” telling the resident to keep being awesome. The house’s status is then logged in a database by the second team member, who is also marking which houses they’ve hit and which route they’ll take. The first time a house gets an Oops tag, the city will still empty the bin. After that, it’s up to the resident to either correct the error or risk having their recycling bin sit full of empty cheesy pizza boxes and plastic bags until they clean it out themselves. If a house gets two Oops tags in a row, the city will drag the bin back up to the house, in a slap on the wrist to the resident. If someone insists on placing recycling bins full of contaminated trash on the curb after that, the city will take the bin away. But that rarely happens.
The Oops team I tagged along with said they noticed improvements in areas after leaving notes. “We do see a few houses that don’t seem to want to change their way,” Derek Phillips, an Oops team member, tells me. “They just don’t even want to try.” But otherwise the program has been a huge success. The first pilot launched in an area where 70% of the recycling was contaminated. Six weeks later, after leaving notes on recycling bins, 70% of the houses were getting Shine On tags.
Of all the ways Phoenix is trying to reduce contributions to the landfill, the Oops program—simply reinforcing good behavior and helping guide people toward recycling—has been the most successful. The program has now been rolled out citywide, with Oops team specialists recording an average 80% improvement from the first week of the program to the sixth week. Overall, it’s helped teach residents not to bag their recyclables or attempt to recycle plastic wrap and styrofoam. (Didn’t you always wonder if those were recyclable? They’re not.)
The combination of all of these efforts has gotten Phoenix to a 36% diversion rate—markedly better than the 16% they were at when Stanton first began thinking about sustainability, but still not quite to the 40% they’re aiming for. Whether 40% is achievable solely based on changes to human behavior, reward tickets, and relentlessly seeking new markets for Phoenix’s waste remains unknown. But Spencer is, as always, optimistic that they’ll get there.
I wavered on visiting the landfill, because it was over an hour away, and I imagined I could visualize what tons of garbage looked like. But you can’t. The landfill had been described to me as a mountain of garbage on the moon, and that is exactly what it looked like. Even though several people in the car had been there before, everyone let out a gasp as we rounded a bend and the part of the landfill being worked on that day came into view. The surrounding countryside has spiky snow-capped mountains in the distance and gorgeous rocky desert stretching in every direction. And there, in the middle of this otherwise Instagram-worthy vista, is everything everyone in Phoenix has ever thrown out, bulldozed into trash mountains so towering they compete with the dirt-based mountains in the distance.
Perhaps what’s so jarring is that the detritus of our own lives is easily recognizable. It’s not just a mountain of shapeless black trash bags. It is the literal embodiment of a disposable consumer culture that values the new over the old. All of the things people wanted out of their sight, out of their homes, and out of their lives—gone. Broken toasters, shredded clothing, slices of branches, unidentifiable food scraps, and so many plastic bags.
We stared in silence for a while, and then Stacy Hettmansperger, the public works operations manager, cleared her throat. “People talk about throwing things away,” she says, “but there isn’t really any such thing as away. When you throw something away, it still has to go somewhere.”
INDIVIDUAL CHANGES AREN’T ENOUGH
Reducing contributions to the landfill is an enormously complex task. Even with the amount of brainpower and effort Phoenix has applied to the system, it’s hard to know whether they’ll hit their goal by the end of this year, or their longer-term dream of becoming zero-waste. And if it’s too much for a city to handle, it’s certainly too much for individual citizens to handle. When Spencer starts telling me about what I should do with my old clothes (yes, I should take them to Goodwill but only the nicely used ones, and Phoenix’s Textile Curbside Collection program means people must not only separate yard waste and recyclables into different containers but also old clothes), I feel my brain start to tug apart at the seams. It’s enough for me to get through the workday and make sure there are vegetables on the table at dinner. Even though I don’t want to be buried in my own garbage, it’s too hard to stay on top of what items can be recycled today.
Spencer tells me she was inspired by Bea Johnson, who fit all of her family’s waste for the year into a small mason jar. Johnson is something like the patron saint of sustainable living, and I hear her name invoked multiple times while researching this story. The part people don’t tell you, which she reveals in her book, is how she foraged for moss to use in place of toilet paper. This is not something a family with two working parents, especially living in New York City, is going to do. Ever.
Even so, when I return from Phoenix, still reeling from the site of the lunar-like landfill, I make some new decrees in our house. We will no longer buy paper towels or plastic bags. I replace the cat litter with flushable litter. I buy glass Tupperware, all of which is delivered to my house wrapped in plastic and nestled in styrofoam. I purchase beeswax wrap to replace plastic wrap. I overhear my son’s friend, upon seeing the beeswax wrap, telling him that her mother went through a similar phase. “Don’t worry,” she says. “In about a month everything will return to normal.”
Spencer and Hettmansperger told me that they, too, had made changes in their personal habits since joining the public works department. Both buy fewer clothes. Spencer will only buy a new suit to replace an old one, and then donates the old one to an organization that helps women with job training. She collects her used paper towel and toilet paper cardboard and gives it to an organization that provides school supplies.
“When I was a kid, I used to have the latest and the greatest,” Hettmansperger tells me. “Now I’m rethinking that.”
Months later, despite my son’s friend’s comment, we remain free of paper towels and plastic wrap. But I still have no idea how to recycle what. The daily deluge of plastic and paper that comes into the house is overwhelming. My kids come home every day with papers from school and plastic gifts from classmates. My husband delivers a seemingly endless supply of plastic coffee cups into our house. I order things online and then wrestle with the packing materials.
s someone who spent a good chunk of my career as a user experience designer, I can definitely say that the user experience for reducing garbage sucks. It is too much for one person, let alone one family, to handle. Too much to think about, too much to remember, too many options, too much work, and too many plastic bins in the kitchen. There is only one conclusion I can come to: The companies that manufacture everything cluttering up my garbage need to do something about it. I don’t want to have to think about whether things are recyclable. I don’t want to have a separate bin for paper and one for plastic and one for compost and another for clothes. I don’t want to think about which polymers can go in the recycling bin. I want everything to be able to go into a recycling bin or to not exist.
I don’t know whether this day will ever come, but I don’t want the entire onus to be on me. I just want to throw things in the recycling bin and have them be recycled. I am busy, I have other things happening in my life, and if the national recycling rates are any indicator, I am not alone. As a nation, we will never reach the San Franciscan utopian levels of recycling without legislating what private industry can produce. The EU came to this conclusion in 2017 and set a goal of having all plastic packaging be recyclable by 2030. A year later the EU decided that directive alone wouldn’t do enough to reduce the amount of garbage Europe generates, and it mandated that single-use plastics (which make up 80% of litter on European beaches) be replaced by recyclable or compostable materials. Unless we want a future where we swim in plastic seas and drive over combustible land, these mandates need to become U.S. law.
When I told people I was working on this story, I was often asked if I was “a sustainability person.” Before writing this story, I would not have characterized myself as such. Now, with my beeswax wrap and household ban on Ziploc bags, maybe I’m getting there. When I asked Congressman Stanton if he was a sustainability person, he took issue with the premise.
“Whether you are a sustainability person or not, you should be a sustainability person. It is both the right thing from the climate change perspective and the right thing from an economic perspective. Those countries, states, and cities that get that and move forward are going to have a brighter economic future.”
Even though recycling is overly complicated and not user-friendly, Phoenix is slowly making its residents into sustainability people. The new mayor, Kate Gallego, has continued Greg Stanton’s efforts. In February, the city council voted to raise monthly solid-waste collection rates, including both trash and recycling, for the first time in 11 years in order to maintain their existing level of service. Spencer can’t help but see this as the result of being led step by step into recycling and composting, nudged by her and her team toward the vision of a more sustainable future. And perhaps, on a voluntary, individual basis, they will get there