Reuse models, single-use plastics bans, extended producer responsibility, and bottle deposit schemes are among zero waste practices gaining traction. But even as these concepts catch on, only the most progressive and determined communities have made meaningful headway.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

March 4, 2024

5 Min Read
Aleksandr Elesin / Alamy Stock Photo

Zero waste policies and programs are slowly but steadily emerging across the world. Their adopters see them as a way to shift from a linear economy that thrives on mining, manufacturing, and disposing materials to a circular approach to keep products and packaging in distribution and slow the tide of waste.

Reuse models, single-use plastics bans, extended producer responsibility, and bottle deposit schemes are among zero waste practices gaining traction.

But even as these concepts catch on, only the most progressive and determined communities have made meaningful headway.

These programs are broad and comprehensive, demanding a series of time- and labor-intensive steps to get them off the ground, says Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA. The organization supports cities, joint power authorities, nonprofits, and others in developing or strengthening reuse, recycling, and compost programs.

“What we found throughout most of the country is there is a focus on residential recycling only. With zero waste the trend is to look also at commercial and institutional waste as well as industrial waste, including construction and demolition materials,” Liss says.

“We are striving to figure out how to find a home for everything that we can, and when there is no home, to find a way to create one through market development or incentives.  As a last resort we would look to implement bans,” he says.

One evolving concept is resource recovery parks, which co-locate reuse, recycling, and composting facilities. These operations usually live at existing transfer stations or landfills, solving for the challenge of having to find new property while also directing residents to a place they are familiar with. Now they can bring additional discards that they organize in categories to be dropped off in bins and prepared for recirculation.

With reuse systems, consumers deposit containers at retail locations once they are done with them, or containers are collected from homes.  Advocates like World Wildlife Fund who push for policy to support these consumption models estimate that replacing just 20 percent of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers at least $10 billion in business opportunities.

Most zero waste plans address organics, which typically comprise up to 50 percent of the waste stream. California leads in this space, with legislation that in 2025 will require a 75 percent reduction in organics to landfill and for businesses to donate at least 20 percent of surplus edible food. Though more jurisdictions are looking to implement food donation programs or composting. Some are moving to anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste to power or transportation fuel.

Nonprofits are increasingly the power horses beyond these initiatives as in the case of an ongoing controversial project in Hennepin County, Minnesota that just made headlines again in late February. The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, with Zero Waste USA’s support, is working to close a mass burn facility there. In its place they want to accelerate recycling and composting and require organics waste separation.

The county board approved an agreement to have trash burned at the Minneapolis facility through 2033. But the nonprofit environmental justice group has steered a change in direction. Under the new terms, Hennepin County can back out before the stipulated end date if it shutters the operation. It’s yet to be seen if this will happen, but in Liss’ mind the county’s decision to add this clause is testament to their recognition that zero waste is coming.

He points to resources to jumpstart or advance zero waste work, such as $4.6 billion in Climate Pollution Reduction grants. The EPA has a website with model ordinances, model contracts, and other supports.  And Zero Waste USA developed planning toolkits for both communities and businesses, among resources.

The concept of zero waste is at least decades-old, though it’s hard to pinpoint just when it emerged because it has evolved over time as has the terminology to describe the principle. Some early conversations eluding to “zero waste” date back to the 1990s when Canberra, Australia adopted “no waste by 2010.”

“Australia’s vision was brought to the U.S. shortly after discussions at the National Recycling Congress where the term was first proposed. Then the concept and messaging around it was refined by environmental leaders in conversations on this newfangled internet,” Liss says.

Initially the movement spread quicker in businesses than in communities, perhaps because they can be more agile than governments that must adopt ordinances and follow other involved procedures.

With the emphasis on climate change and reducing emissions, zero waste meets many businesses’ corporate goals. But the private sector is also financially driven, Liss notes.

“Particularly in the U.S. we saw businesses more interested during the Great Recession of 2008 because they couldn’t keep raising their prices and were unable to introduce new products as the economy downturned. To remain financially stable and solvent they tried to cut costs and found zero waste, which is all about efficiency,” he says.

Communities who signed the Urban Environmental Accords took the lead in the public sector. The Accords are a set of actions to address environmental challenges and opportunities unique to cities, and they spell out goals including zero waste by 2040. Developed under the lead of California Governor Gavin Newsom, who at the time was mayor of San Francisco, the measures and objectives have since been adopted by the United Nations.

By now over 100 U.S. cities embrace zero waste as a goal, with the first movers on the West Coast, and the next in line being Austin and other progressive cities in Texas, despite that landfill tipping fees were low and there was very limited access to coastal markets for recycled commodities.

The movement rippled to the East Coast where today Baltimore; New York; Boston; Washington D.C.; and Atlanta are among many major cities that have adopted ambitious zero waste goals.

Governments around the globe have aspired to hit net zero emissions by 2050. With their eyes fixed on this crux in time, more of the world’s largest cities down to grassroots groups in rural corners are veering from a carbon-intensive linear take, make, dispose path, to a  more circular one, with the conviction that the economy has to operate within the planet’s limited resources to be truly sustainable. 

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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