Missoula’s plan to decrease its solid waste by 90 percent over the next 30 years may seem ambitious, but a new state five-year plan shows just how important the effort is.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently published its 2018 Integrated Waste Management Plan analyzing how well the state has managed to reduce the amount of waste buried in landfills over the past five years.

The answer: Not much has changed since 2011, partly due to Montana’s rural nature and small population. People living in small isolated communities can’t recycle unless they drive miles, carrying their waste to larger cities. And services are often limited in larger cities because no recycling facilities exist for materials like glass.

But strides have been made in some categories, especially in Missoula, home of organizations like Home ReSource, Free Cycles and the former EKO Compost.

“Those are the pillars of the zero-waste community,” said Chase Jones, energy conservation coordinator for the city of Missoula. “In the context of the state, I’d say we’re the leader in the zero-waste economy and being conscious of our waste stream.”

The 2005 Legislature tried to make Montanans more aware of what they’re throwing away by setting a 2015 goal of diverting 22 percent of the state’s waste from landfills using a variety of methods. The highest priority is reducing consumption in the first place, followed by re-use, recycling and composting.

But during the past five years, Montanans achieved that goal only in 2014. The state slid back during the following two years, when only about 17 percent of waste was kept out of landfills. No data was available for 2017.

DEQ suggested that Montana might be doing better than that, because the annual landfill surveys are voluntary. Some landfill operators don’t respond so DEQ doesn’t have all the numbers.

Still, considering that the 2011 survey showed almost 20 percent of waste was kept out of landfills, the state hasn’t come very far.

In fact, between 2011 and 2016, the amount of waste Montanans generated increased by almost 120,000 tons to more than 1.8 million tons. So in 2016, every Montanan, regardless of age, sent almost 8 pounds of garbage a day to landfills.

Forecasts show Montana's population will grow 14 percent over the next 30 years, reaching 1.16 million by 2030. The average life span of these landfills has been 43 years, but space is being used at a higher rate than anticipated, according to the report.

That’s a problem, especially for growing cities like Missoula, Bozeman and Kalispell.

Some might still remember the trouble Long Island, N.Y., had in 1987 when it ran out of room and had to start shipping its garbage to other states by barge. Long Island learned its lesson, and since 2010, it has recycled about a third of its waste.

It doesn’t take living on an island to convince people that wasting land and resources is unsustainable. Other communities have gone even further, such as Fort Collins, Colo., which already recycles half of its waste but aims to have no waste by 2030.

In 2016, every Montanan, regardless of age, sent almost 8 pounds of garbage a day to landfills. That poses a significant challenge in Missoula, where the goal is Zero by Fifty. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
In 2016, every Montanan, regardless of age, sent almost 8 pounds of garbage a day to landfills. That poses a significant challenge in Missoula, where the goal is Zero by Fifty. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Compared to other Montana cities, it’s likely that Missoula keeping more than 22 percent of its waste out of its landfill. But Jones said the city doesn’t know well it’s doing.

That’s why one of the first steps of the city’s Zero By Fifty plan is to measure how much Missoulians consume and how much they recycle or throw away. Jones said the survey would be completed by June.

Jeremy Drake of Home ReSource said his business has 24 paid part- and full-time employees who help the community reuse 900 tons of building materials each year.

“We know that’s not nearly all of it,” Drake said. “One of the exciting things about Missoula is there are three deconstruction contractors working here. That’s one of the ways that materials are staying out of the dump and in the community. I think we’re unique for a community our size to have that amount of service in the growing deconstruction sector.”

That’s important when towns like Missoula and Bozeman are experiencing huge building booms. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that construction and demolition waste is twice the amount of all other waste combined.

Unfortunately, the other big contributor to Montana landfills is food and yard waste, which adds the greenhouse gas methane to the air during decay. Both kinds of waste could be reduced through composting and programs that funnel unused food to needy people.

Medical and pharmaceutical waste can also be challenging with a growing, aging population, although Montana sponsors drug drop boxes in a number of communities.

The DEQ task force listed a few small successes, but they couldn’t offset some daunting barriers to reducing waste, including the fact that China has stopped accepting U.S. plasticfor recycling. The task force also said that ultimately, it still comes down to educating the public about the importance of thinking twice before tossing something in the trash.

“Waste is not inevitable,” Jones said. “We need to rethink waste as a resource.”

The DEQ is requesting public comment on its report until Dec. 20. For more information, go to http://deq.mt.gov/Public/notices/solidwastelegalpublicnotice.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.