By Amber Todoroff
In September 2020, Iowa State University (ISU) Sustainability Coordinator Merry Rankin had an unusual challenge: what to do with the 600 outdated paper towel dispensers the university suddenly had on hand after a facilities upgrade.
It is a question faced by decision-makers at organizations large and small every day as they manage waste from daily operations. Often, waste is trucked to a landfill or, if possible, a recycling facility where some of the waste is broken down and, hopefully, turned into something new. But ISU and other organizations in Iowa have a different, greener waste disposal option: The Iowa Waste Exchange (IWE).
The 31-year-old state-funded program has diverted over 4.178 million tons of waste from landfills and saved nearly $120 million in disposal fees and related costs since its inception. These results were achieved using a community- and education-based approach to waste management that raises local environmental consciousness and addresses waste issues before they start.
When boxes of paper towel dispensers started filling up ISU’s storage space, Rankin called Shelly Codner, IWE’s resource specialist. A little over a month after that first phone call, all of the paper towel dispensers found new homes in nearby schools. Not a single one was thrown away.
“I contacted every school in my area and told them [the paper towel dispensers] were available, and we just started making a list of the schools that needed more paper towel dispensers,” explained Codner. “Schools that were able to have the resources to come and load up the paper towel dispensers did. And those that didn’t, we generally delivered them. We actually had a school that was outside of the state that met me halfway.”
The solution was a win for the environment, a win for Iowa State University, which avoided landfill fees, and a win for the schools that would have otherwise needed to purchase these basic items brand new.
The paper towel dispensers are just one example of the 503 waste exchange matches made in 2020 by the IWE.
Waste Exchange Programs Born of Necessity
While ISU’s paper towel dispenser problem may be an unusual case, every organization must dispose of trash, and often large quantities of it. Every year in the U.S. 260 million tons of municipal solid waste is created, presenting a daunting challenge for both policymakers and organizations seeking to reduce costs and bolster their sustainability.
Local governments and the public have invested heavily in recycling programs over the past several decades, but such programs have come under heavy criticism in recent years for high costs, low efficacy, and failure to tackle the root causes of waste. These causes are primarily overproduction and consumption of single-use or short-lifetime products.
The concept for the modern waste exchange dates back to World War II when the United Kingdom established the National Industrial Materials Recovery Association in 1942 to conserve materials for the war effort. Waste exchanges began to proliferate in the United States in the 1970s, mostly serving as informational notice boards of available refuse. Dozens of waste exchanges currently exist at the local and state level, some maintaining the bare-bones notice board function of early waste exchanges, and others, such as IWE, developing more sophisticated programs with multiple full-time staff.
IWE resource specialists assist in diverting waste by facilitating exchanges, performing waste-reduction audits, and by educating communities. Each of the five specialists is charged with a geographic area in the state, where they build networks of people and organizations interested in using IWE services.
Because these relationships have been built up over years or even decades, they can often make matches with just a few phone calls. Otherwise, the products are listed on a waste exchange board, where both buyers and sellers are kept anonymous to protect possibly sensitive business interests. Payment arrangements, if any, along with transportation, are left entirely up to the parties giving and receiving the items.
And while the exchange program is a key part of keeping waste out of landfills, IWE works to prevent waste from being created in the first place through free consultations with interested public and private organizations.
“Even though we make a lot of matches, our main focus, of course, is waste reduction,” says Codner. “[Organizations] show us what their wastes are—usually they know what their wastes are—but sometimes on-site visits help us assess if they have a waste stream that can either be reduced or if we can find an outlet for it.”
Such consultations are not part of a regulatory process, so participating businesses will not be subjected to fees or regulatory consequences if their operations fall outside regulations, which builds trust and helps IWE further its mission. And as far as waste materials go, there’s almost nothing IWE will not work with.
“[Resource specialists] deal primarily, as you might think, with the kinds of materials that go into manufactured goods: scrap metals and plastics, glass, those kinds of things—a lot of paper—but, there’s no such thing as an ineligible waste stream,” said Bill Blum, the program planner overseeing the IWE program at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The Environmental Impact
Waste exchanges serve multiple purposes like extending the useful life of materials, preserving limited landfill space, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, and mitigating sources of water pollution. This final benefit was the driving force behind the creation of IWE in 1990, a measure stemming from the state of Iowa’s Groundwater Protection Act of 1987.
“[The Groundwater Protection Act] was really about cleaning up the city dumps, consolidating them, and making the landfills much more environmentally responsible,” said Blum. “[Policymakers] noticed that there were these waste exchange programs around the country. And they said, well, this is something that we could add at a relatively minor cost.”
Less immediately tangible are the carbon savings from the waste diversion. Because trash in landfills decomposes through anaerobic digestion, landfills are responsible for 15 percent of human-related methane emissions in the United States. Methane is a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. Diverting waste reduces both landfill methane and illuminates the need to create new items, lowering greenhouse gas emissions at both the start and end of product life cycles.
In the decades since its founding, Iowa’s waste exchange model has proven itself as an effective and efficient environmental program. The program’s total cost is about $400,000 a year—a tiny fraction of Iowa’s $8 billion budget—funded through a small portion of the state-wide $4.25 per ton landfill tipping fee. Every year, the program diverts about 100,000 tons of waste and, in 2020 alone, saved over $4.7 million in disposal fees and related costs for participating businesses.
‘Reduce, reuse, recycle,’ has been a mantra within the environmental movement for decades. But of the three, recycling has commanded a far greater share of public attention and spending, even as municipal recycling programs have been shown to be both costly to local governments and broadly ineffective. IWE and similar programs point the way to high-value, high-impact solutions to solve waste problems at their source and bring communities together while doing it.
Amber Todoroff is a Senior Policy Associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.