Reaching Zero Waste is Impossible Without Strategies for Reducing and Reusing

Reaching Zero Waste is Impossible Without Strategies for Reducing and Reusing

Have you seen the documentary “Racing To Zero” yet? It spotlights San Francisco’s efforts to achieve an aggressive zero waste goal of diverting 90 percent of its municipal waste from landfill by 2020. San Francisco leads the country in this endeavor, and in that regard has much to teach the rest of us.

However, the film’s too sunny presentation of the City by the Bay’s recycling efforts to the near exclusion of reducing and reusing risks sending a message to consumers that could perversely result in more waste generation—and wasteful consumption, not less.

Recyclables can be a valuable source of materials that can be turned into new products for often less cost and environmental impact than mining and processing virgin materials. It creates jobs and protects resources.

That said, not all materials can be physically recycled (due to difficulties separating for instance), or benefit from profitable markets that would warrant their collection. 

Achieving zero waste is about more than collecting recyclables and turning them into new products. It’s about an integrated approach to solid waste management that reduces the amount and toxicity of wastes in the first place. It’s about making sure that waste materials are directed to their highest and best use; this may include refilling some packages, for example, rather than simply sending them for recycling.

Finally, according to the definition adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance, and espoused by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council and others, zero waste is about more than landfill diversion. It is about preventing waste from occurring in the first place by changing consumption culture with a prominent role for Reduce and Reuse, the two R’s that rank above Recycling in EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy.

“Racing to Zero” has close to zero (couldn’t resist the pun) discussion of San Francisco’s efforts to promote these other 2 R’s by highlighting campaigns (which I presume exist) to encourage consumers to use refillable water bottles and coffee cups, bring their own bags to the supermarket, or shop in thrift stores, swap instead of buy new, or obtain used products via online platforms such as eBay and Craig’s List.

These other 2 R’s are just as important if not moreso within an integrated solid waste management plan (and documentary) educating folks about the best way to get to zero waste. 

Composting does play a key role in “Racing to Zero” (and is the ‘star’ of the film’s trailer), as it is considered to be a form of recycling, and its benefits are well displayed, although its treatment too could benefit from a more balanced discussion of alternative, environmentally preferable ways of disposing of food waste such as nourishment for humans and animals.

Understanding why “Racing to Zero” is so unbalanced is not germane to this column (although the film’s producer is listed as an artist in residence at Recology, the city’s outsourced recycling organization, and Recology is listed as a partner on the official website.) And I don’t mean to shoot the messenger. This film has much to teach about the potential value of recycling to shift perceptions of trash from garbage to a resource. Given its single-minded focus on recycling, perhaps it would have been better titled along those lines rather than as a portrayal of San Francisco’s zero waste efforts with its multi-pronged approach.

My main point is this: Without a more concerted focus on Reduce and Reuse, together with a more balanced discussion of the effectiveness of recycling with the context of achieving zero waste, “Racing to Zero” and any related communication by any other group to follow will lose an important opportunity to credibly educate the public at large and those of us in cities like my own (New York) about the role that recycling can play as an effective solid waste strategy. At worst, it risks sending a message to consumers that recycling is the new ‘away,’ and that our throwaway culture can continue unabated.

This is a modified version of a column that originally appeared at

Jacquie Ottman is the founder and principal of New York City-based Ottman Consulting Inc. Since 1989, Ottman has been advising Fortune 500 companies and several U.S. government ecolabeling programs on positive strategies for encouraging consumers to consume more sustainably. In 2012 Ottman founded, an online community of influencers forging a ‘no waste lifestyle’ via the sharing of global best practices. She is also the author or co-author of five books on green marketing.

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