According to our most recent research, central Ohio’s waste-diversion rate has surpassed 50%.

This means that residents and businesses are keeping more than half of the waste they create out of the Franklin County Sanitary Landfill by recycling, composting and reusing materials.

This new rate, which is up from 45% a few years ago, is the highest rate of recycling on record for our communities and is one of the highest rates in the Midwest.

This record was accomplished in no small part from the help of partners across Franklin County who are taking waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting seriously.

Otterbein University, for example, has tackled the problem of plastic waste by reducing the number of single-use water bottles sold on campus.

Meanwhile, local school districts, including Columbus and Hilliard, as well as the cities of Upper Arlington, Westerville and Bexley, are accomplishing their goals of diverting cafeteria and residential food waste from the landfill.

And events like the Dublin Irish Festival continue to increase the amount of material they recycle each year.

We applaud their efforts.

We have a lot to celebrate in central Ohio. But as good as our recycling rate is, I believe we can do better.

We’re still putting 1 million tons of waste into the landfill each year, 76% of which has the potential to be recycled or composted.

That’s why SWACO has set a goal to help Franklin County achieve a 75% diversion rate by 2032. We believe that in just over 12 years, our community can divert three-fourths of the waste we produce from our landfill.

This is an ambitious goal, but based on trends over the past several years, I think it’s both realistic and attainable. In order to support our community’s waste-diversion efforts, however, SWACO wanted more insight into the local waste stream. In other words, we needed to know what and how much people are throwing away that could be recycled or composted and how well people are recycling materials. To gather this important data, we’ve undertaken several studies.

This year’s Waste Characterization Study, for example, has given us a close look at the materials coming into the landfill.

Once during each of the past four seasons, we rerouted a random sample of waste-hauling trucks from the landfill to a designated waste-sorting area.

After the trucks emptied their loads, workers manually sorted and weighed the materials by category, such as plastics, yard waste, food waste and cardboard.

The results were surprising. We learned we’re throwing away a whole lot of food and cardboard.

In fact, 14.7% of the material was food waste. That equates to more than a million pounds coming to the landfill every day.

Think how many hungry people here in Franklin County we could feed if we could rescue and donate edible food instead of trashing it.

The rest of the food waste could be composted, creating nutrient-rich organic material to feed lawns and gardens.

And all that cardboard easily could be recycled and turned into new cardboard and other paper-based products.

Another study looked at people’s recycling behavior – what they’re recycling and how well they’re doing it.

Thanks to funding from the Recycling Partnership and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, we teamed with the city of Columbus this summer for the Feet on the Street initiative. Workers walked the streets, auditing the contents of recycling containers at 18,000 Columbus households.

From this effort, we learned that more than 70% of Columbus residents recycle, but 25% put items in their recycling carts that are not accepted in the curbside recycling program, things like yogurt cups, greasy cardboard and plastic bags.

We call these mistakes “contamination.” If there’s too much contamination in a recycling container, all the contents must go into the trash.

During the audits, when carts with contamination were found, we took the opportunity to share information from SWACO’s Recycle Right, Make a Difference campaign about how to recycle correctly.

These efforts paid off. We saw a 62% reduction in the amount of bagged recyclables placed in the residential containers and a 35% reduction in the number of plastic bags, like grocery bags, being put in the containers.

These and other studies are giving SWACO a wealth of data about waste diversion trends – data that will help us better understand residents’ recycling behaviors.

Armed with this information, we can make decisions about our existing and future programs, policies, communications and investments that will help us reach our 75% waste-diversion goal.

Ty Marsh is executive director of SWACO. Questions about its operations can be directed to him at questions@swaco.org. His office provides this column to ThisWeek Community News.