Less is More

ZERO WASTE MAY SOUND LIKE AN ABSURD IDEA. So when Berkeley's City Council announced it had officially adopted a zero-waste goal, I thought, there go those crazy Californians again. The zero-waste movement aims to create a waste management system in which everything is recycled, reused or composted, leaving nothing remaining for disposal. Berkeley wants to divert 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010, then reach 100 percent diversion by 2020. [See “Aiming for Zero” on page 6.]

A handful of communities — Del Norte County, Calif.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; San Luis Obispo County, Calif.; Seattle; and Toronto — have adopted similarly aggressive goals to eliminate all of their waste.

So have Berkeley and the rest of these local governments gone to the loony bin? Not really.

Berkeley's Solid Waste Division Manager Tom Farrell says city officials are well aware that zero waste is somewhat of a pie in the sky idea and admit that it is unlikely the city will eliminate all of its waste in the near future. After all, the city is only diverting 52 percent of its waste from landfills now. “We're not going to be able to wave the magic wand and change the way that the packaging industry does business by ourselves,” Farrell says.

Nevertheless, while other cities struggle with stagnant or declining recycling rates, setting higher diversion goals helps get the community in the right frame of mind. “You've heard the expression being on the right track?” Farrell asks.

Truth be told, zero waste is an approach, not a mandate. The goal is to eliminate as much waste and get as close to zero as is practical. “Practical is a big judgment call. No one is going to give up educating their child and instead spend public dollars on recycling tennis shoes,” Farrell says.

But the goal will encourage the city to update its solid waste management plan and programs. For example, Berkeley is likely to target new materials for diversion such as food waste and construction and demolition debris. The zero-waste goal also will allow the city to develop outreach programs to educate residents and businesses about producing less waste, Farrell says.

People probably snickered more than 30 years ago, when Berkeley developed the nation's first solid waste management plan that included separating refuse from recyclable materials at home. The idea was considered radical at the time. Yet curbside recycling has since become mainstream.

So, while many communities are more realistic in setting recycling targets of 55 to 75 percent, it's entirely possible that Berkeley will reap enough benefits to make its lofty goal worthwhile. In other words, aiming for zero doesn't mean the city is destined to bat zero.

The author is the editor of Waste Age