Talking Zero Waste at WasteExpo

Talking Zero Waste at WasteExpo

I recently returned from WasteExpo in Las Vegas, the grand gathering of huge trucks, plastic bins and big guys in suits sharing laughs with other big guys in cargo shorts. As Ed Sullivan would have said, this is the “really big shew” for the waste industry. So what was a guy like me, who advocates for the elimination of all waste, doing at a conference where everyone makes their living thanks to the abundance of waste in our nation?

Thanks to Dr. Stuart Buckner, the organizer of the annual Composting & Organics Recycling Conference at WasteExpo, I was invited to speak on a panel on The Road to Zero Waste. I was very pleased that the room was full; after all, it was 9:00 in the morning in Vegas! I didn’t have a lot of time to talk, so I focused on delivering three key messages. My first and most important point was that the age of solid waste management plans is over. It’s a new century that we need to start planning for, and that means it is time for all cities to start writing zero waste community plans.

I call it the “Two-Word Revolution” because replacing the words “solid” and “management” with “zero” and “community” represents the start of an important new way of thinking and speaking about waste issues. Instead of writing plans on how to manage waste, we can start planning to eliminate waste to the greatest extent possible. And instead of a solitary public works director being responsible for making sure all the trash “goes away,” now we open the dialogue and challenge to the full community, because achieving zero waste takes more than government alone.

It is a relatively simple and inexpensive step for a city to proclaim that “the pursuit of zero” is now the official policy of the community, and it makes all the difference. Think of it like rolling a small snowball down a hill, and how over time it gathers speed and size. I have witnessed what happens in a city after the city council proclaims zero waste as their long-term goal. Suddenly the public staff has the freedom to have conversations they couldn’t have before. Suddenly there are local entrepreneurs coming up with innovative new ways of reducing waste. Amazingly, a whole new energy sparks inside city hall that is exciting and optimistic. One public works director even thanked me for making his job interesting again!

The pursuit of zero can look very intimidating, so my second point was “don’t panic, there’s an app for that.” In fact, it’s not really an app, but rather a 43-page guidebook written by Eco-Cycle called “The Community Zero Waste Roadmap.” Our roadmap is a comprehensive presentation of a 21-step, three phase, 10-year plan for achieving zero waste. It is a compilation of all the best practices at work today in America related to the new policies, programs and infrastructure a community will need to implement over a 10 year period.

At WasteExpo, I heard many people lamenting that the waste industry service providers aren’t getting paid enough for all the hard work they do for society. Well, I think the zero waste approach can help fix that because it brings a new level of sophistication and complexity to the waste industry that will be paid for by an appreciative public. Remember, the goal of zero waste is to transform waste into resources, doing that will require an expanded discard management system that protects the resource value in the recyclables, compostables and reusables. To do that will require new business start-ups and expanded activity by existing market players.

I am not pollyannaish about how this vision of a zero waste future threatens the existing status quo. The WasteExpo floor show, one of the best in the industry, was full of huge compactor trucks and high-tech mixed-waste sorting systems. I understand why the haulers want to keep using the trucks they know, as well as the single trash bin system they know, and that, if they must, they can deliver the stuff in the truck to a sorting facility instead of a landfill or incinerator. But I think change is coming since this mixed-waste sorting approach of compacted garbage isn’t really working very well, and never has over the last 30 years. I think we’re going to start seeing a new generation of non-or-light compacting collection vehicles that will be picking up multiple bins of source separated materials. But hey, the good news is that there are still trucks and bins!

So, with change coming, it’s going to be a little painful for some companies I saw at WasteExpo. It was for them that I made my speech point number three, which was “why bother?” There are many answers to that question, but the biggest one may be “because it is already happening and you don’t want to miss the boat.” There are powerful economic and environmental factors at play in the waste industry that aren’t going to go away.

For example, the value of some of our discards will only keep going up in the future, such as rare earths inside old electronics, aluminum and other metals, and highly desirable paper such cardboard. Of course, there will be market value dips like in any commodity industry, but the long-term trends are clear.

In addition, the environmental opportunities from a zero waste path just keep getting more valuable, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to creating local jobs and lowering water and air pollution. Not to mention the intrinsic value of global resource conservation in an age of declining natural resources and booming population growth leading to resource wars across the globe.

It was five years ago that I last attended WasteExpo, and that was to see if the term zero waste was being used by anyone. Only once did I hear it, and that was in negative terms at a lunch time speech by a CEO of a large trash company who warned the audience that the zero waste movement was actually a threat to everyone in the room. So I was elated to be asked to speak on the topic, and even happier to see a genuine interest by some in the audience. Change comes slowly, but it does come.

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management.

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