Despite our best intentions, America remains a disposable society. In 2011 we generated 250 million tons of garbage, nearly double the amount in 1970. Over the same period the number of dumps in the U.S. dropped from 20,000 to 1,900, and many municipalities privatized trash hauling, leading to higher dumping fees. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the average cost of dumping is about $44 a ton, compared with $8.20 in 1985. Another way to look at it: We waste $7 billion a year on trash.
Some forward-looking cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle are working with the private sector to reduce the negative impact of landfills and to cut costs by aiming for what’s called zero waste. It’s a stretch target, but getting anywhere near it would be a big improvement over the status quo. The national average for recycling is only 35%.
San Francisco, the national leader, now recycles or composts 80% of its waste. Coming up fast are Portland, Ore., at 70% and Seattle at 56%. Seattle, which has an aggressive and innovative recycling program, is seeing some impressive results.
Over the past decade the city instituted a training program for business as well as a series of fines for the recalcitrant. In September it banned companies from throwing out glass, plastics, and aluminum — an expansion of a law that already covered paper. Despite a few concerns — the service industry worried that its employees would have to dig through garbage to sort out recyclables — the program is working. (It turns out that many restaurant customers are happy to do the sorting themselves.) Recycling and composting rates for Seattle’s commercial sector now stand at 61%, up from 37% 10 years ago.
Timothy Croll, Seattle’s solid-waste director, counts Amazon, Boeing, and Starbucks among the city’s recycling stars. And the local Building Owners and Managers Association has so wholeheartedly embraced the initiative that it now gives out Golden Dumpster awards to properties that generate the least waste.
Why the enthusiasm? It pays. Brett Phillips, the sustainability director at Unico Properties, which manages more than 3.2 million square feet of Seattle’s downtown office space, says his company saves $10,000 to $15,000 per building each year, adding that composting and recycling cost roughly half as much as garbage collection.
Recycling does have its challenges. New York City residents, for example, recycled only 16% of their trash — who’s got room for all those bins in a small apartment? Yet even cities like New York will eventually have to ramp up their recycling as dumping fees keep rising. And they could do worse than to take a page from Seattle’s playbook.
This story is from the November 18, 2013 issue of Fortune.