Photos courtesy of City of Tucson

In the wake of a widespread push for increased environmental protections by both citizens and the federal government, municipalities across the nation have been stepping up to the plate to address climate change concerns at the local level.

For the city of Tucson, Arizona, Mayor Regina Romero and Tucson’s city council sought a comprehensive approach to the issue through the adoption of a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan in September 2020. Prompted by the city declaring a climate emergency, the plan focuses on deploying a “just and equitable transition” to shift the local economy from “dirty energy to energy democracy.”

As the third fastest-warming city in the U.S., according to nonprofit organization Climate Central, this decision makes Tucson one of more than 1,700 cities and jurisdictions to declare a climate emergency worldwide.

As part of the action plan, the city tasked a Climate Action Advisory Council with implementing its goals, which included prioritizing the deployment and use of renewable and locally sourced energy, transitioning away from fossil fuels, incorporating green infrastructure into community design, and planting more trees through the Tucson Million Trees Initiative.

With the ultimate target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 and zero waste by 2050, the plan includes specific mandates and goals for the city’s Environmental and General Services Department.

“We looked at [the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan] and began brainstorming what we needed to do internally as a department to really get us geared up and prepared to meet those goals,” says Carlos De La Torre, director of Tucson’s Environmental and General Services Department. “The first thing we did was identify the assets that we currently have and [decide] whether we can use them to meet the new mandates.”

According to De La Torre, an obvious area to begin developing new sustainability initiatives was at the Los Reales Landfill—a regional landfill serving the residents and businesses of Tucson and Pima County. Los Reales, which opened in 1967, is Tucson’s only active landfill. The facility takes in about 2,300 tons of solid waste daily and the city spends roughly $8 million every year to process waste at the site.

“We have active landfill cells and a lot of property around the facility, so [we felt] this was pretty much the best location where we could essentially not only meet the mandates but be able to bring other strategies to that facility that would enable the city to meet a lot of the goals outlined in the climate action declaration,” says De La Torre.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM

Over the past year, city officials have looked into effective ways to support Tucson’s climate emergency declaration within the 1,200 acre landfill.

“Our goal, just like any other landfill, is to maximize the use of the landfill … but also [to] build basically a buffer around the facilities to make sure that we can be a good neighbor, not only today, but in the future,” says De La Torre. “By providing that space [to pursue sustainability initiatives], we hope to make the Los Reales Landfill a community asset.”

As part of the larger planning effort to achieve waste reduction goals, Tucson City Council voted unanimously in July to rename the landfill to Los Reales Sustainability Campus, or LRSC. In addition to dawning a new name, the announcement also came with formal plans to alter the landfill’s landscape and implement sustainability programs to divert as much waste as possible away from the site.

The preliminary concept for the sustainability campus includes 110 acres to expand the dumping portion of the landfill and about 350 acres for economic development and sustainability projects around the perimeter of the landfill, including a tree nursery, a processing center for construction debris and a material recovery facility (MRF).

As reported by the Arizona Daily Star, one of the goals is to turn the facility into an educational space where residents can learn about what happens to their trash while simultaneously offering a way for discarded items to get a second chance for use at last-chance stores.

“The idea [behind] the sustainability campus was really the fact that we had a city facility, and we control that facility; so, let’s use the facility so we can deploy a lot of these initiatives and support other functions throughout the city,” says De La Torre.

At the time of this writing, development plans for the LRSC are currently in review to see whether they are in line with planned area development.

“We’re hoping the plans will be approved and won’t necessitate the need for us to go into major pad amendments,” says De La Torre. “Most likely we will need some sort of a project area development amendment in the near future to really accommodate all the various uses [we have planned] throughout the facility, but that’s probably going to be maybe two to three years down the road.

“Today, the focus is what we can do with our current pad approval. Let’s maximize that and work around that so we can begin to deploy a lot of the concepts and ideas on the northern side of the landfill in the next 12 to 18 months.”

FINDING INSPIRATION

The current plans for the facility—created by The Planning Center, a planning and landscaping architecture firm based in Tucson—showcase an elaborate effort to transform the Los Reales Landfill into a multipurpose complex.

Featuring several economic development and recreation areas, as well as 500 feet of buffer between the campus and adjacent properties, the conceptual plans prioritize the community while also addressing the city’s solid waste concerns.

“Typically, we wait until landfills are closed before we start using the landfill as an open space,” De La Torre told the Arizona Daily Star. “We want to make sure that we start doing that now rather than wait until the landfill is closed.”

In addition, the LRSC has intentions to develop food and green waste processing operations, a gas recovery and reutilization facility, a composting facility and two landfill reforestation areas.

According to De La Torre, the guiding principle throughout the development process has been to find a way to achieve the goals and mandates in the city’s climate action resolution as best as possible.

“It has pretty much been our responsibility to begin to craft [these] programs and initiatives at the staff level, and that’s creating a very rough framework in terms of what solutions might be out there,” he says. “So, moving forward, we’re embarking on what we call our ‘Zero Waste Roadmap.’”

As part of the roadmap, the Environmental and General Services Department will contract a waste characterization study to identify the major contributors to Tucson’s waste stream. Alongside this effort, the city will also study what other cities across the county are doing to accomplish zero-waste goals.

“The idea [behind] the sustainability campus was really the fact that we had a city facility, and we control that facility; so, let’s use the facility so we can deploy a lot of these initiatives and support other functions throughout the city.” – Carlos De La Torre, director, Tucson Environmental & General Services Department

“I think the next step is looking at what some of the aspirational cities are doing, such as Denver, Portland, Seattle, Austin and San Francisco,” says De La Torre. “What are some of the programs that they have deployed? What have they learned? And really, what’s working?”

From these observations, De La Torre hopes the city will gather additional ideas to consider in order to achieve zero waste.

“Obviously, we’re doing what we can to compile all of this information. However, one of the things we want that might be a bit nontraditional is we want to make sure that our circular economy plan is Tucson-centric,” says De La Torre. “We have a lot of aspirational cities, but we need to make sure that our plans reflect our community in terms of where we are, where we have been, what the demographics are, and what the median household income and affordability looks like.

“We can come up with a lot of plans, but we need to make sure that they’re financially feasible and practical.”

Moving forward, the city will begin to finalize what facilities and sustainability projects to include at the LRSC to maximize diversion and opportunities for local reuse and recycling.

The city’s Environmental and General Services Department anticipates the Zero Waste Roadmap will be completed by December 2022. From 2023 to 2050, the department has plans to begin development and implementation of the Zero Waste Roadmap and related programs.

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.