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SWANApalooza Panelists Look at How to Achieve Zero Waste to Landfill by 2040

At this week’s Virtual SWANApalooza 2020, hosted by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), one of the keynote sessions addressed “Legislation and Policies Needed to Reach Zero Waste to Landfill.”

The panelists that took part in the discussion were: Thierry Boveri, Senior Manager, Raftelis; Bridgett Luther, Sustainability Director, Continuus Materials; Ted Michaels, President, Energy Recovery Council; and Pamela Peck, Policy & Compliance Program Director, Metro. Steve Simmons, President, Gershman, Bricker & Bratton, Inc. moderated.

During a prerecorded portion of the session, Simmons asked the panelists how they or their organization define “zero waste.” Michaels commented that, “I think you have to define ‘zero’ as zero. Which is why I think ‘zero waste to landfill’ is a better marker for companies and municipalities to achieve in terms of the possibility of success.” Luther emphasized the importance of circularity and cradle-to-cradle thinking as companies and others look to innovate toward reduced waste. 

Weighing in on what type of policies could help increase demand for waste feedstock, Peck talked about her work to help modernize Oregon’s recycling system—and the myriad challenges of contamination. “Producers have a lot of goals right now. They want to get recycled materials into their products, but we need to help them get clean materials. I think that’s going to mean standards for generators, and we also need to look at what’s coming out of our material recovery facilities. A key piece of really making our materials much more marketable to more markets is cleaning up the stuff that those end markets don’t want to see in there.” 

During a live Q&A after the recording, Simmons posed the question of whether energy recovery should be included in the definition of zero waste. Luther noted that she liked the idea of adding this piece into the definition particularly because so much energy can be recovered from discarded food. “I think when we talk about zero waste, we need to talk about everything that ends up in your trash bin that ends up going somewhere and who’s going to deal with it.” Michaels agreed that energy recovery deserves a place in the system: “There is so much material being landfilled with energy value that it would be a same to continue to bury material that could be recovered. On the theme of our session, ‘Achieving zero waste to landfill by 2040,’ energy recovery plays a very important role in getting to that goal.” 

As to whether there will always be a need for landfills, Boveri noted that, “Until we get to a point where we have the technology that ensures we have something we can’t deal with, or that can’t be turned into a resource for another process, we will continue to have the need for landfills and still have to manage and deal with our active landfills. Some folks are already mining those too.” 

Another question asked whether it is time for a North American landfill directive. Peck weighed in that, “I don’t think we should be sending food to landfills. So yes, a landfall disposal ban for food is a good policy, but it needs to be preceded by a lot of programs that help the generators set up and separate that stream. And we also need to focus on food-waste prevention. The biggest impacts are from production, not disposal.” She also noted such policies need to be coupled with some that push prevention and reuse. Luther further pointed out that policy like this needs to be accompanied by resources. 

The session wrapped up with a discussion on “zero waste at what price.” 

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