Is Zero Waste Possible?

March 1, 2001

11 Min Read
Is Zero Waste Possible?

Kivi Leroux

Challenging the assumptions of traditional integrated waste management programs, Del Norte County, Calif., is the first U.S. municipality to adopt a zero waste plan.

Del Norte County, Calif., is a quintessential rural, western county struggling to convert an economy based on fishing, logging and agriculture to something more in tune with the new economy. With a population of fewer than 27,000 and falling, the county's unemployment rate hasn't dropped below 10 percent since 1976.

It's hardly the kind of place where you would expect a conservative local government to adopt what may be the most progressive solid waste management policy in the United States. But in February 2000, Del Norte did just that by passing the nation's first comprehensive zero waste plan.

Zero-waste advocates look at the materials residents and businesses throw away not as garbage, but as resources that should be conserved. This conservation can take many forms, from preventing waste from being created through more efficient manufacturing and product use, to reusing and remanufacturing discarded materials instead of disposing of them in landfills and incinerators. Ideally, waste that currently is landfilled or incinerated would not be produced in the first place, or would be reused or recycled. Zero waste, advocates say, is the logical next step after the widespread success of recycling programs in the United States.

But many in the solid waste industry think zero waste is an impossible goal and an expensive proposition that will produce only disillusionment and frustration for the public and the industry. Zero-waste advocates, including the staff at the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, Crescent City, Calif., believe just the opposite that a zero-waste approach makes the most economical and environmental sense over the long-term.

Most everyone agrees, however, that actually reaching the point where absolutely no waste is created is unlikely. In response to those who immediately brush off zero waste as unrealistic, advocates have modified their mantra to zero waste or darn close.

Zero waste is a goal that we know we really can't get to, says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, D.C., and board member of the Grass Roots Recycling Network, Athens, Ga., the leading zero-waste advocacy group in the United States. But zero waste also is a process, with very clear environmental, social and economic benefits. By working through the process, you get closer to the goal.

Zero waste is a goal that we know we really can't get to. But [it] also is a process, with very clear environmental, social and economic benefits. By working through the process, you get closer to the goal.

Del Norte officials see more than a theoretical goal in zero waste; they see a way to address some very real practicalities. Their landfill is closing in 2003, and the county has decided to build a materials recovery facility (MRF) and transfer station rather than a new landfill. They expect their solid waste management costs to double as they export all of their waste outside the county.

The only way to minimize those costs would be to reduce the amount of materials leaving the county. The zero-waste plan will guide them in significantly reducing the amount of waste requiring disposal.

Instead of looking at waste that the county must transfer, transport and dispose of at increasing costs, Del Norte officials view their discarded materials as a stream of natural resources that can be used to create jobs in salvage, reuse, processing and secondary manufacturing. Instead of looking to forests and oceans for natural resources, Del Norte now is looking in its dumpsters, too.

Planning for Zero Waste

To prepare its zero waste plan, Del Norte first completed a discard study to describe what currently is being collected for recycling, composting and disposal. Based on the study, the authority developed a service voids analysis, which identified gaps in the current system and prioritized strategies to increase waste prevention, recycling and marketing of targeted materials. [see Del Norte Targets 7 Recovery Programs above.]

The plan outlines several market-based incentives and contract provisions for recyclers and waste management companies to encourage waste reduction. The plan also emphasizes developing local and regional markets for reusable and recyclable materials, and cooperating with other area public agencies and businesses. It also allows the authority to advocate for local, state and federal policy changes that will help the county move toward its goal.

None of these elements, says Tedd Ward, a planner with the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, are typically included in an integrated solid waste management plan. But they are critically important to reaching the zero-waste goal.

A year after adopting its zero-waste plan, Del Norte is actively implementing it. For example, the county has redesigned some of its pricing systems to encourage more recycling, including a lower rate for metals recycling. The authority also is pursuing a resource recovery park that will house reuse and recycling businesses, and serve as an incubator with businesses potentially sharing retail areas, warehousing and back-office functions. The authority expects to open the facility with at least three participating businesses in the next two years.

Building Partnerships

The zero-waste plan gives us a strategy for every single item in the waste stream and for taking on an advocacy role for those materials that we can't recycle, Ward says.

The plan outlines an eight-step process for addressing problem materials, beginning with public-private partnerships and progressing toward regulatory solutions. [See 8 Ways To Deal with Problem Materials below.]

Kevin Hendrick, director of the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, points to one successful local market development project as a model for how he hopes to address problem materials and fill in service voids on the path to zero waste. In the early 1990s, about 50 percent of the material going to the county landfill was fish waste, he says. The county couldn't continue to provide that level of disposal capacity to the fisheries, but eliminating that disposal option would have meant shutting down the fishing industry, a potentially lethal blow to the local economy.

Instead, the county worked cooperatively with fish processors and local manufacturer Hambro Forest Products, Crescent City, Calif., to form a new company Eco-Nutrients Inc. Eco-Nutrients uses fish carcasses and crab and shrimp shells to make a slurry for organic agriculture and animal feed. Crab and shrimp also are processed for chitin, which is used in contact lens production.

What started out as a solution to a local waste problem now has become a boon to the local economy, Hendrick says, adding that other businesses can be created to use materials that currently are landfilled, following the same model of public-private partnership.

Del Norte County may be the first and only municipality in the United States with a comprehensive zero-waste plan, but many communities already are implementing elements of the plan's agenda. As more communities adopt a zero-waste philosophy, local solid waste and recycling programs could change in three key ways:

  1. Using market forces to send zero-waste signals. Municipalities will use financial incentives to move their communities toward zero waste. They will continue to implement unit-based pricing programs that charge higher fees for those who throw away more trash. Conversely, those who recycle more will pay less. Contracts with solid waste management companies and permits for construction and demolition will be structured with financial incentives to increase reuse and recycling, while penalizing landfill disposal and incineration. Full-cost accounting and life-cycle analysis will continue to gain acceptance as local governments include the environmental and social costs of managing waste in their decision-making.

  2. Integrating resource management into larger community plans. Communities will integrate their waste management plans with local land use, economic and business development, and revenue plans so that residents and businesses receive a clear message that waste prevention and recycling are preferred over disposal. Communities also will provide incentives and assistance to reuse and recycling businesses through favorable tax and fee structures and the support of resource-recovery parks.

  3. Increasing pressure on manufacturers. As they come to view solid waste management as an unfunded mandate placed upon them by manufacturers of unrecyclable products and packaging, zero-waste communities will play a larger role in pressing manufacturers to take responsibility for the recovery and recycling of their products. Manufacturers that do not participate voluntarily may be subject to consumer deposit programs similar to bottle bills and also could be subject to additional minimum-recycled-content standards for their products. Communities will encourage residents to participate in direct-action consumer campaigns targeting specific products or manufacturers.

Gary Liss of Gary Liss & Associates, Loomis, Calif., who serves as team leader for Del Norte's resource-recovery park study, says most of these zero-waste incentives can be adopted by local governments at little or no cost.

Zero waste is about setting new rules for the road the rules are broken now. We aren't using the tools we have to send the right signals in the marketplace, he says. With zero-waste plans, we can eliminate incentives for wasting.

Ward says the greatest challenge in writing the zero-waste plan was overcoming the initial criticism.

We have to get over this idea that we are talking about 100 percent diversion. This is not AB 939 [California's law requiring a 50 percent recycling rate] at 100 percent. That easily can be dismissed as patently ridiculous, he says. Zero waste is a way to step back and look at overall systems. With the zero-waste plan, we are talking about implementing practical concepts, one step at a time, at the local level, building community partnerships and including advocacy as part of our role in managing discarded materials.

Once over this initial barrier, the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority found broad community support.

Zero waste resonated with our local officials, even in our economically challenged county, Hendrick says. Working toward zero waste is really about creating new businesses and new jobs, which even the most conservative members of our community acknowledge is a good thing.

Kivi Leroux is a free-lance writer and Waste Age contributing editor based in Washington, D.C.

Del Norte Targets 7 Recovery Programs

In 1999, Del Norte County identified the following target recovery programs in order of priority as part of its service voids analysis in its zero waste plan:

  1. Land application of sewage sludge.

  2. Establishing drop-off areas for ferrous metals, mattress box springs, furniture and non-ferrous metals.

  3. Recyclables recovery from commercial loads through commercial recyclables collection programs and picking recyclable materials from loads delivered to the transfer station/materials recovery facility.

  4. Establishing and promoting mechanisms to expand recovery of metal appliances and textiles from thrift stores.

  5. After demonstrating the viability of a local market for the finished product, establishing a facility capable of composting yard debris, food and paper.

  6. Establishing a salvage, reuse and resale facility for construction materials.

  7. Establishing periodic collection events or a drop-off mechanism for collecting electronics equipment.

Source: Del Norte Zero Waste Plan, February 2000. The plan is available online at

8 Ways To Deal with Problem Materials

Key to reaching zero waste is learning how to manage materials that do not currently have viable reuse or recycling markets. Del Norte has developed an eight-step process to deal with these problem materials.

  1. Target Producer Partnerships. If local programs can't be designed cost-effectively to reuse, recycle or compost a problem material, the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority will work with businesses that sell and manufacture these materials to either: a) completely address the concerns that are problematic with these wastes, or b) take them back from consumers.

  2. Help Initiative Innovation. Identify voluntary initiatives that producers might undertake regionally. Identify incentives to enable businesses to provide the desired services.

  3. Expand and Diversify Existing Recovery Systems. Build on current reuse and recycling programs.

  4. If Partnerships Fail, Extend Producer Responsibility. If public-private partnerships fail to create a recovery system within five years, a recovery ordinance will establish a deposit, fee, fine or mandatory program for the proper recovery and/or disposal of the target material to be levied at the point of purchase.

  5. Start Recovery. The recovery ordinance also would require those who sell the material in question to cover the capital costs for local recovery infrastructure expansion or to establish a take-back system for those products.

  6. Assure that Recovery is Cheaper than Wasting. Review rate ordinances to provide incentives for waste reduction.

  7. Assure Capacity. Recovery mechanisms must have the capacity to process all recoverable discards.

  8. Ban Recoverable Discards from Disposal. For materials that pose extraordinary hazards or are readily separated for recovery and for which the recovery system will have adequate capacity, disposal bans are one of the most effective ways to assure zero waste.

Source: Del Norte Zero Waste Plan, February 2000.

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