Neil Seldman co-founded the Institute for Local Self-Reliance nearly 50 years ago to help communities gain decision-making power to shape their fates.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

March 7, 2023

9 Min Read
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Neil Seldman co-founded the Institute for Local Self-Reliance nearly 50 years ago to help communities gain decision-making power to shape their fates. One core component of the national advocacy group’s mission is to help locals move toward a zero-waste economy—the organization’s ambition even before zero waste was a common term.

Seldman now leads Cornucopia, a Zero Waste USA program that supports cities, community groups, and businesses in sustainably managing their resources. In this Q&A he shares communities’ compelling stories; what’s come from their work beyond environmental and economic benefits. How to motivate people to make less trash and save what’s of value so it can be put to use. And he talks about what trends he sees down the pike in zero waste as the movement gains traction.

Waste360: Exactly what is considered zero waste?

Seldman: Zero waste for managing the stream of materials discarded by households, businesses and government agencies consists of

  • Reducing the waste stream by 90% or more through source reduction, recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion and reuse,

  • Organics out of landfills,

  • No incineration

This is the detailed definition established by Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA): “The Conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials without burning them and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

Waste360: What are main components of a zero waste plan?

Seldman: The main components are composting/anaerobic digestion, recycling, and reuse.

Composting and or anaerobic digestion are important elements of a zero waste plan because 40 percent of the stream is organic, producing methane and contributing substantially to global warming. Compost materials when applied to the soil sequester carbon and reduce water consumption, among benefits. One of the greatest benefits of  digesting source-separated organics is it’s a means to recover methane fuel.

In industry recycled materials reduce energy needed for production.

Reuse is also an integral component of a zero waste plan, where products or parts of them are used again for the same or similar purpose. What is salvaged through reuse only accounts for about 5 percent of what would otherwise enter the waste stream but brings substantial value because you do not break down and remanufacture; rather you fix materials.

One area where we are seeing reuse models is in food packaging/food service ware as there is tremendous opportunity for economic and waste reduction gains in this space.  Clean Water Fund’s ReThink Disposable program has helped food businesses switch from single use to reusable food service ware and reported that small dining businesses that made the switch saved between $3,000 and $22,000. As far as the environmental benefits, these operations used 110,000 to 225,000 less packaging items each. And they reduced their waste by 1,300-2,200 pounds. 

Electronic scrap is becoming a big focus in the reuse, repair, and resale market as it contains a lot of valuable working parts. If you take apart a computer you will find many metal alloys, and if you keep them separate they are all the more valuable. 

But there are so many other streams and some interesting models to capture them. Another example that comes to mind is a group based in Lane County, OR. Saint Vincent De Paul (SVDP) earns over a million dollars a year selling refurbished appliances, cars, and other equipment for reuse. They also have a whole textiles program where they hired a fashion designer and are making their own line of clothing. SVDP has over 750 employees trained in repair, trucking, and retail sales. SVDP also helps social service agencies replicate their reuse enterprises through the Cascade Alliance, which has started 10 businesses throughout the U.S.

Waste360: Reuse models are still kind of nascent. Have you seen any of these programs take off?

Seldman: The ReUse Corridor comes to mind. I see it as the model of the future for rural America. The ReUse Corridor grew from the zero waste program at Rural Action in Athens, OH encompassing the eight surrounding counties. The network is comprised of grassroots organizations, businesses, universities, and local economic development agencies. The Corridor now spans West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—supporting economic development in these Appalachian regions that have been depressed while working toward zero waste.

The goal of the ReUse Corridor is to re-skill the workforce in Central Appalachia using recovered materials as its inventory and feedstock. Some interesting projects are a woodworking shop where people are trained in up cycling recovered materials. And there’s a solid waste district that sends mattresses and other hard-to-recycle materials to partners in the Corridor who aggregate and market them for recycling or for reuse.

Waste360: What are some vehicles to motivate people to generate less trash?

Seldman: Zero Waste USA recommends unit pricing, or ‘pay as you throw’ where residents’ trash service charge depends on how much they throw out. They typically pay a fee per bag or per can of trash they generate. Set outs of recyclables or organics for composting are not charged, creating an economic incentive for households to participate in programs.

We also recommend shared savings programs. One example is a reuse company, Urban Ore in Berkeley, CA that recovers reusable and recyclable items from the city’s transfer stations. The company receives a payment from the city that’s equivalent to what it would cost the city to send the materials to landfill. Private companies like RoadRunner, a hauling company, provide shared savings opportunities for small business they serve.

One example of how shared savings can stimulate more community composting projects is for a city to provide a service fee to the community for each ton of food discards it takes out of the waste stream. A city may pay $150 for collection and $70 per ton for landfill tip fees, or $220 per ton. A service fee of $25 per ton could provide revenue for community composting.

And we recommend surcharges where local or state governments attach an extra fee for incineration and landfilling.

This is being done in some parts of the country. Alameda County in California put a surcharge on landfilling and incineration years ago, which has generated about $10 million a year to invest in  recycling, composting, and reuse through its Stop Waste program.

Waste360: What are benefits of zero waste projects beyond economic and environmental ones?

Seldman: There are many social and quality of life benefits. RecycleForce is a social enterprise that helps people coming out of incarceration to re-enter the workforce. They train and hire program participants to recycle surplus items from airlines, hotels, and other large generators. HomeBoy Industries in Los Angeles, CA established an electronic scrap refurbishing enterprise that creates good jobs with health and family benefits to former gang members for former gang members. These non-profit enterprises have dramatically reduced recidivism.

Similarly, a company in Baltimore called Second Chance has a business model focused on reuse. They use the revenue they generate to train people with barriers to employment. They deconstruct buildings and salvage materials from these projects that they make available to the public. They started with six workers in 2003 and now have 250 workers. The company continues to expand and hire more workers. A Mandatory Deconstruction Ordinance has been proposed for all buildings constructed before 1970 Baltimore. If it passes, Second Chance will need to double its workforce to meet the demand for this service.

Many workers trained in refurbishing move on to better jobs because they learned work skills and have shown they are good at what they do. That’s the social impact. Then there are the substantial money savings if persons who come out of prison never go back. The general public also benefits as they can purchase good used products paying pennies on the dollar.

So reuse is an important economic, environmental, and social investment. The robust enterprises pay sales tax to local and state governments.

Waste360: Do you have other zero waste stories that are compelling social impact examples?

Seldman: There is another Baltimore group; a nonprofit called the Filbert Street Community Garden. It’s near an elementary school. Students raise trees and flowers in the garden. A compost pad is built adjacent to the garden. The Baltimore Community Compost Collective was formed where workers go out on bicycles and in trucks to collect organic waste in neighborhoods. They leave containers for the community and pick them up when they’re full, replacing them with more empty ones for the next collection.

Source-separated organics are composted and used in the garden. This operation creates jobs and educational experiences for young people to learn about nature and composting. They become inspired to become new leaders in their community in advancing zero waste.

So zero waste is revolutionary, not only in how we handle materials, but in that we are enhancing the lives of young people and improving the natural world. We are educating the next generation. We are improving local economics. And we are improving people’s spirit. That’s what zero waste is about.

Waste360: What do you see as top trends, moving forward, in zero waste?

Seldman: More Composting: Composting is a magic elixir for the economy and the environment. It is, as Renee Wallace, community compost organizer in Detroit said, our secret weapon. It creates jobs, conserves water, sequesters compost, and improves the health of soils in agriculture and horticulture.

More Domestic Markets: Since the 2018 import cut off by China there has been a burst of capital investment in paper mills, plastic processing, and e –scrap processing and recovery. State Right to Repair legislation will stimulate the creation of thousands of new jobs in these industries.

Reuse: This sector, like composting, is in a boom phase. Minnesota Reuse has documented at least 80,000 jobs in the state in repair/reuse and fix-it enterprises including electronic scrap, textile, and wood pallet reuse.  Elsewhere, companies like Urban Ore, Berkeley, CA; Construction Junction, Pittsburgh; and Habitat for Humanity ReStores and traditional thrift retail in many regions are expanding rapidly.

Federal Dollars: This is to provide capital for zero waste infrastructure.

There is also significant investment in film plastic processing. New polypropylene processing plants have opened. One mixed waste plastic plant that processes the material for the cement industry is under construction in York, PA.

At the same time there are counter trends.

Incineration: While companies are investing in recycling film plastic the petrochemical industry is rushing to build incinerators to manage plastic waste. *

Extended Producer Responsibility: These laws often give control over recycling from local government, concentrate corporate control over traditional recycled materials. These same companies have overseen recycling in the U.S., which has stagnated for the past 20 years at between 32%-35% recycling.

Editor's Note: There is controversy around chemical recycling leveraged by petrochemical companies. While some environmental advocates say it is not actually recycling and call it incineration, which is burning (involving combustion and no  oxygen), chemical recycling, which predominantly leverages gasification, involves little to no oxygen and no combustion. Though there are some associated greenhouse gas emissions, and it is energy intensive.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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