California Adopts Zero Waste Goal in Strategic Plan

Few policymakers take the zero waste movement seriously, but California may be helping to change this perception by adopting a zero-waste program as part of its seven-part strategic waste plan.

Ratified last November by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB), Sacramento, the state's strategic plan notes that the public, industry and government will work to promote a “zero-waste California” and “to reduce, reuse or recycle all municipal solid waste materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.” This is the first instance nationwide that a zero-waste policy has been adopted by a state.

“Zero waste gives people the courage to go on and do those other things that weren't part of their original roles as local government and industry leaders,” says Gary Liss, principal of Gary Liss & Associates, Loomis, Calif., state plan consultant. “The emphasis shifts away from focusing on a landfill problem to focusing on consumption practices in America, and that is what zero waste is about.”

The literal goal of zero waste is to create a waste management infrastructure where everything is recycled, reused or composted, with nothing remaining for disposal. But most zero-waste advocates are realistic, confessing the unlikelihood that all waste can be eliminated, at least in the foreseeable future. Advocates claim that declaring a zero-waste goal is the most effective way to eliminate the maximum amount of waste, with some residual disposal.

To achieve its goal, California plans to promote source reduction by reviewing barriers to attaining existing mandates and continuing to educate the public about zero waste; promoting best business practices in product manufacturing and handling, such as working with trade associations to promote beneficial source reduction and related manufacturing opportunities; and promoting new or existing technologies and processes to address existing or emerging waste streams.

But more than 30 major industry groups have objected to several terms, such as “extended product responsibility,” in the draft version of California's strategic plan, claiming it would include expensive or infeasible mandates regarding recycling and waste diversion.

“Voluntary efforts by business to increase recycling are more cost-effective [than mandates] because they give businesses an opportunity to experiment with different management practices while protecting the environment,” said the Sacramento-based California Chamber of Commerce in response to the plan. “The Chamber further opposes the use of the [CIWMB] strategic plan as a means to bootstrap into state policy onerous ‘product stewardship’ requirements that could result in tremendous cost increases to businesses in California.”

Yet zero waste advocates argue that striving for the goal often means more efficient and cost-effective businesses. “People often misconstrue zero waste as being solely a punitive way of dealing with solid waste,” Liss says. “It's not. Businesses often save money.” By increasing waste diversion, he says, companies can reduce disposal costs and increase operational efficiency.

Certainly, the zero-waste concept is not new. The California Resource Recovery Association, Folsom, adopted this goal as part of its Agenda for the New Millennium in 1997. The Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), Athens, Ga., has been promoting initiatives throughout the country. And in February 2000, California's Del Norte County Solid Waste Management Authority adopted a zero waste plan, the first such policy in the country.

“What the zero waste goal does is provide us a clear vision of the direction we want to go in, and that is zero waste or close to it,” says CIWMB board member Mike Paparian. “In manufacturing, there often is a goal of having zero defects. [Employees] understand that it's the goal to strive for.”

Companies that have achieved more than 90 percent waste diversion include Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, Calif., which has a goal to reach zero waste by 2009; Mad River Brewery, Blue Lake, Calif., which diverts 98 percent of its garbage from landfills; and the Pillsbury company in Minneapolis, which estimates that it saves more than $500,000 per year in avoided disposal costs because of waste diversion efforts.

Other themes in the plan, which will guide the state's waste management activities for the next three to five years, include sustainability, product stewardship, energy recovery, environmental justice, safe waste disposal and increased efficiency in CIWMB activities.

CIWMB is planning regular reviews of its strategic plan throughout the next few years to monitor its progress. For more information, visit