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Zero Waste: Closer than You Think

The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time by Paul Connett (Chelsea Green 2013) is about 100% waste recovery and reuse, the new gold standard in recycling. Connett’s new book summarizes the state of play of the zero waste movement in local communities around the world. His detailed descriptions of existing programs and technologies provide powerful ammunition for local activists trying to pressure city and town governments to be more environmentally responsible.

zerowaste_DVAccording to Connett, we have had the technological capability to recycle 80-90% of our waste stream since the mid eighties. What has held us back has been an artificial corporate-centered view that maximizes profit for waste management companies, the contractors who build and operate incinerators and soft drink bottling companies.

Waste management companies and incinerator contractors have powerful lobbies, as will as cozy relationships with many community councils. Connett also documents the little known role of the Business Environmental Action Coalition (BEACC) in lobbying major cities to provide curbside recycling for glass and aluminum cans. Following the first Earth Day in 1970, BEACC, whose members included Coca-Cola, the Aluminum Association and 7 Up, feared the introduction of producer-focused waste reduction laws (e.g. mandatory deposit/return programs). They viewed limited curbside recycling as a way to head this off.

History of the Zero Waste Movement

The zero waste movement first got its start in Berkeley, California in the 1980s and in Canberra, Australia in the 1990s. At present, California and Italy are at the forefront in terms of community participation. By 1996, 300 California communities had achieved 50% trash diversion (from landfills and incinerators). San Francisco reached 80% diversion in October 2012 and expects to reach 100% by 2020. More than 200 Italian communities have achieved 70% diversion, with some small towns reaching more than 80%.

Not only is zero waste recovery better for the environment and human health,1 but it’s far more economical than traditional waste management. Recycling and reusing resources always saves money. Loss of revenue, stemming from the 2008 economic downturn, has forced many corporations to focus on more efficient resource use. Japanese companies are the clear leader here, with nearly 2800 producing zero landfill waste. A surprising number of Fortune 500 companies (including Anheuser Bush, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Pillsbury Xerox, Ricoh electronics) have also committed to zero waste.

The Twelve Master Categories of Discards

Zero waste experts divide the waste stream into 12 reusable fractions:

  • Reusable goods – repairable appliances, demolition debris and reusable clothing, furniture and household items.
  • Metals
  • Glass
  • Paper
  • Plastic polymers (including plastic bags)
  • Textiles (including non-reusable clothing)
  • Chemicals, including reusable solvents, paints, oil and lubricants.
  • Wood from non-reusable lumber and furniture (can be made into wood chips)
  • Plant debris
  • Putresibles – kitchen waste, manure
  • Soils – from barren or developed land
  • Ceramics, rock, porcelain, concrete and non-reusable brick

At present, more than 90% of the waste stream can easily be recovered for resale. The non-recoverable fraction consists mainly of hazardous materials such as batteries, electronic equipment, mercury-laden fluorescent bulbs and disposable diapers. Many zero waste advocates want to implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) to deal with hazardous waste. Under EPR, the manufacturer is expected to come up with a non-toxic alternative or to accept the product back for safe disposal.

Of the 12 recoverable fractions, kitchen waste, which comprises 33-40% of the waste stream, is the easiest to resell (as compost). Connett contrasts communities in Italy that merely encourage backyard composting, with Seattle and other cities that offer curbside collection of kitchen waste. The latter has proven far more cost effective, largely because backyard composting isn’t an option for the hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, which generate most of it.

Zero Waste Creates Jobs

In view of the immense cost savings, I was surprised to learn that job creation is another important benefit of a zero waste approach. Rising land, energy and transportation costs make landfills and incinerators so expensive that zero waste programs are always cheaper, despite employing more people.

  1. Recycling reduces the burden of climate change by eliminating methane production (one of the most damaging greenhouse gasses) from decaying landfills and carbon emissions given off by waste incineration. Both landfills and incinerators pose major health hazards. Landfills leak toxic substances into the water table. Incinerators produce dioxin, which is linked to cancer, birth defects, and immune and neurodevelopmental problems. []

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