Aiming for Zero

WHEN IT COMES TO REDUCING the amount of waste that it sends to landfills, Berkeley, Calif., believes it is time to aim high. In March, the Bay Area city adopted a goal of achieving zero waste — total landfill diversion — by 2020. As part of the same resolution, Berkeley also is aiming for a 75 percent diversion rate by 2010.

After unanimously approving the zero-waste goal, the City Council charged the Solid Waste Management Commission and city staff with mapping out a plan to reach the goals.

The zero-waste movement seeks to create a waste management system in which everything is recycled, reused or composted, with nothing remaining for disposal. Yet most zero-waste advocates are realistic, acknowledging the unlikelihood that all waste can be eliminated, at least in the near future. Instead, they say that aiming for zero waste is the best way to eliminate the maximum amount of waste headed for disposal in landfills and incinerators.

Tom Farrell, manager of Berkeley's Solid Waste Management Division, says city officials are well-aware of how ambitious the zero-waste goal is and that Berkeley is trying to get as close zero waste as it can. “The city of Berkeley is not going to be in a position to reverse the spin of the Earth to achieve zero waste,” he says.

“The idea here is that you do not satisfy yourself by stopping at any point on the road, and that you always maintain a direction and always try to maintain headway toward that goal,” Farrell adds.

To come within several percentage points of zero waste, a community would need to see substantial changes in the way manufacturers make and package consumer goods, so that they are more suited to recycling and reuse, Farrell says. Such an effort would require the help of the federal and state governments, as well as private industry, he says. “That's not something that Berkeley is going to be able to dictate to the rest of the nation,” he says.

Nevertheless, there are several ways in which Berkeley can significantly boost its landfill diversion rate, which currently is 52 percent, Farrell says. First, Berkeley likely will begin a program in which residents can separate food waste from their regular trash and place it in their yard debris collection containers.

The city currently collects yard debris for composting from residences every other week. The addition of food waste to the program would necessitate weekly pickups of the bins, Farrell says. Berkeley collects food waste from commercial sites such as restaurants and school kitchens.

Another target for diversion is construction and demolition debris. The city is likely to establish some type of program for materials such as brick, cement and untreated wood to be collected and reused as building or road construction material, according to Farrell.

Other options for increasing diversion include passing an ordinance mandating more space for recycling bins at apartment complexes and revamping the city's building code to require all future buildings to contain a certain amount of space for recycling. The city's older buildings do not have a lot of room for recycling containers and other kinds of collection bins, according to Farrell.

The city also will need to supplement whatever steps it takes with an aggressive public education and marketing campaign, Farrell says.

Farrell says that final decisions on how to reach the diversion goals could take about nine months. “These are big decisions,” he says. But by taking the steps discussed, Berkeley will be “in the 75 percent [diversion] zone,” he says.

Berkeley is not the first local government to aim for zero waste. San Francisco; Seattle; Del Norte County, Calif.; and Santa Cruz, Calif., are among the cities and counties that have adopted similar goals. In 2001, the Sacramento-based California Integrated Waste Management Board voted to promote a “zero-waste California.”