It's Hard To Be a Zero

munities are likely to find that meeting a zero-waste goal is quite a challenge.

You couldn't miss the press releases and news stories when General Motors announced that half of its plants will be “landfill-free” by the end of 2010. I'm not sure why anyone would be surprised that a company wants to reduce costs. Increasing profits by lowering expenses is simply smart capitalism.

What is news is that so many companies are telling the world about this particular cost reduction. Waste, after all, is a small expense for a manufacturing facility, dwarfed by labor, raw material and other costs. Nonetheless, these companies don't just see financial benefits in converting waste into a resource. They also see tremendous public relations value in telling us they are green.

Manufacturers always have looked to use raw materials more efficiently when making products. Now they are redoubling their efforts to use process leftovers more efficiently and to sell what they can't internally reuse. Some of their new discoveries seem naïve, such as learning that used corrugated boxes can be sold. Most, however, involve more efficient use of raw materials, similar, in a way, to a slaughterhouse getting everything out of the pig but the squeal.

Zero-waste advocates argue that some of these companies are being deceptive. Subaru's zero waste plant in Indiana, for instance, can't eliminate all of its waste. These leftovers, which are slightly less than five percent of the original waste stream, go to a local waste-to-energy facility, which in turn sends its ash to a landfill for use an alternative daily cover. Subaru insists this is recycling. I know some recyclers who turn apoplectic at this definition of recycling and insist that it is thermal destruction followed by burial.

But they miss the point. What's burned is food waste from the cafeteria, which Subaru hopes to eventually find a way to compost, and diapers from the plant's day care facility. The diapers only prove that some waste can't be eliminated.

Zero-waste successes at factories have inspired grassroot advocates to promote the idea in their communities. A number of West Coast towns and college communities have adopted zero-waste goals.

But can a community be as successful as a manufacturing plant? A factory has a less heterogeneous waste stream than a city. More importantly, a plant manager can make cost reduction into a crusade and achieve impressive results for the bottom line, especially if the company's CEO backs the effort.

Zero waste in a community is a lot harder. A city council can't control what products its residents buy, and has less control over their recycling and disposal habits than the council wants to admit. A plant manager can fire recalcitrant workers, but a city council can't fire its residents.

Moreover, if we learned anything about recycling in the last two decades, it is that disposal bans without recycling options don't work. The Chinese e-waste “recycling” hellholes are a direct result of e-waste disposal bans that didn't provide recycling options.

Zero waste is an attempt to find new uses for the most recalcitrant elements of the waste stream. Creating a food waste composting infrastructure, for instance, will take years and involve numerous NIMBY battles over the siting of these composting facilities. Zero waste will prod us to higher recycling levels, but for local governments, it will be an elusive and expensive goal.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at