Zero Aspirations

Deep in the heart of texas, city of Austin officials have unveiled an initiative that at first glance might appear as if it might have been hatched in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.

At the beginning of the year, the city announced that it has hired a consulting firm — Loomis, Calif.-based Gary Liss & Associates — to develop a zero-waste plan. Such plans call for a waste management system in which everything is recycled, reused or composted, with nothing remaining for landfill disposal.

Austin officials want to reduce the amount of landfilled waste by 20 percent per capita by 2012 and to achieve total landfill diversion by 2040.

“With the focus on global warming in the past few years, more communities seem to feel comfortable adopting the zero-waste goal,” Gary Liss said to the American-Statesman newspaper in Austin. “These plans could dramatically affect climate change by reducing the methane from landfills and changing the flow of materials through the economy.”

Zero-waste goals are not a particularly new development, but, for the most part, they have been limited to the West Coast. The California communities of San Francisco, Berkeley, Del Norte County and Santa Cruz are among the local governments that have adopted such plans; Seattle is another city to take the zero-waste plunge.

Because of the area in which they are most prevalent and because of the seemingly unattainable objective of the plans, they are often dismissed as starry-eyed, hippie-inspired, pie-in-the-sky thinking. But most zero-waste advocates are realistic and say that the plans are simply the best way to eliminate the maximum amount of waste headed for landfills.

In 2005, when discussing Berkeley's plan, Tom Farrell, the manager of the city's Solid Waste Management Division, acknowledged this. “The city of Berkeley is not going to be in a position to reverse the spin of the Earth [and] achieve zero waste,” he told Waste Age.

And in an era of dwindling room for new landfills and growing concerns about resources and climate change, jurisdictions that make aggressive efforts to reduce the size of their waste streams should be applauded. Far from being hopelessly utopian, such communities are just displaying some good sense.

The author is the editor of Waste Age