California Dreaming

Zero waste is a crazy idea, but when the Sacramento-based California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) set its sights on this goal in November 2001, I had to find out which one of us has been sniffing too much methane. It may be California, dude, but wishing waste away has never worked … or has it?

In the late '80s, I remember chuckling at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 25 percent recycling goal and became hysterical when California passed AB 939 in 1989 requiring 50 percent diversion. But 10 years later, we are recycling or composting 30 percent of our waste nationally, and kooky California isn't looking so crazy with its 42 percent diversion rate.

I'm impressed with Californians' progress, but does this success give them license to get a little loony by promoting zero waste?

The CIWMB isn't mandating zero waste, says Steve “Moose” Jones, the agency's sole industry representative. “We are promoting the idea that people and businesses can be more efficient by reducing waste. We also are encouraging new ways to handle waste.”

CIWMB's goal isn't to eliminate landfills either, Steve adds, noting that California landfilled 39 million tons last year — “more than one ton per second.”

The grandson-in-law of one of Golden Gate Disposal's cofounders, Steve is a third-generation garbageman who says recycling always has made sense — even in the mid-'80s, when he was head of operations for San Francisco-based Norcal. “I saw it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance to our business,” he says. Steve also says waste diversion can help businesses increase their bottom lines as they eliminate waste from their processes or reuse waste materials. For example, aggregate mining operators are stockpiling construction and demolition waste and using it as raw materials for new products.

But how much waste can we really divert?

In Steve's eyes, he's hoping that the state can move from 42 percent to 50 percent diversion by 2006 and not become complacent.

So why set a zero waste goal?

“We believe that the end result will be better business practices that include minimizing waste and using new technologies, such as gasification and pyrolysis to create energy and biofuels,” Steve says.

Despite the zero waste goal, Steve knows there always will be waste. Nevertheless, California is likely to reduce more waste than the rest of us.

And a guy can dream, can't he?

The author is the editorial director of Waste Age