Counting to Zero

Several communities have adopted zero-waste goals, but exactly what they are trying to achieve can vary.

July 1, 2009

6 Min Read
Counting to Zero

Michael Fickes

For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has advised waste disposal operations to use landfills only as last resorts. Today, some municipal solid waste departments are taking that advice to heart and have introduced zero-waste initiatives — programs that aim to winnow waste streams down until virtually nothing is left. “This has been an important mental shift,” says Andy Schneider, recycling program manager with the Berkeley, Calif., Public Works Department.

Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas, are some of the cities that have implemented zero-waste goals. While the zero-waste movement started in the West, where the most mature programs have been developed, it has moved east in recent years. As you will see, “zero waste” means something different in each of these communities, but the essential goal is the same: dramatically reduce the amount of landfilled waste and benefit the environment.

A Number of Factors

Schneider attributes the increased interest in zero-waste goals to several current trends. First off, available landfills are reaching capacity, he says.

Manufacturers also are realizing that it costs more to manufacture with virgin materials than to rehabilitate and reuse or recycle post-consumer products. At the same time, governments taking aim at global warming have begun to regulate industrial carbon dioxide emissions, raising costs in various industries, including those that produce virgin materials. As a result, recycled feedstock looks even more economical.

In addition, landfilled organic materials such as paper, green waste and food waste generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Consequently, governments have begun to ban these organic materials from landfills. Composting facilities will have to take up the slack. “These are some of the core issues leading state and local governments to set zero-waste goals,” Schneider says.

What Does It Mean?

Schneider says that, in Berkeley, “zero waste” simply means “as close to zero as possible.” Since implementing its zero-waste program in March of 2005, Berkeley has boosted its diversion rate from 52 percent to 61 percent. The city hopes to reach a 75 percent diversion rate next year.

Berkeley's techniques for reducing landfilled waste include regulating packaging used in retail stores and restaurants. The city has enacted a ban on certain kinds of polystyrene foam packaging, says Schneider. Berkeley also operates commercial composting and residential recycling programs, and runs a strong public education program designed to teach residents and businesses how to recycle and reuse. For instance, educational materials promote the use of re-usable canvas shopping bags instead of the plastic and paper bags distributed by retailers and supermarkets.

In 2006, Los Angeles adopted its own zero-waste initiative. The Recovering Energy, Natural Resources and Economic Benefit from Waste for Los Angeles Plan aims to divert 90 percent or more waste by 2025, leaving only inert residual materials to be landfilled.

A 20-year master plan called the Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan (SWIRP) is guiding the implementation of the zero-waste goal. Since 2006, SWIRP has moved the city's diversion rate from 62 percent to 65 percent. The next milestone is 2013, when SWIRP calls for 70 percent diversion.

“The city's zero-waste plan includes upstream and downstream policies,” says Reina Pereira, the city's SWIRP project manager. Upstream efforts include lobbying for state legislation aimed at reducing product packaging, Pereira continues.

Downstream, SWIRP provides incentives for recycling and reuse businesses, while requiring all businesses to recycle. SWIRP also calls for the construction of new facilities for composting, resource and material recovery that will be needed to process additional diverted tonnage.

In San Francisco, Zero Means Zero

In San Francisco, they're taking the term “zero waste” literally. “Zero waste means that nothing goes to a landfill,” says Mark Westlund, a spokesperson for San Francisco's SF Environment department. The city's goals include a 75 percent diversion rate in 2010 and a 100 percent rate in 2020.

San Francisco is moving toward those marks. In 1990, when the city first began reporting diversion, the rate was 35 percent. In 2007, it was 72 percent, up two percentage points from 2006. Mayor Gavin Newsom attributes the recent gain to the implementation of a 2006 ordinance requiring the recycling of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. “By requiring builders to recycle debris from construction projects, we were able to divert tens of thousands of new tons of material away from the landfill,” Newsom said in a prepared statement.

Aiming for its 2010 goal of 75 percent diversion, San Francisco is now requiring residents and businesses to sign up for recycling and composting services (see “It's Required”).

In Seattle, zero waste means capping the amount of landfilled waste at the 2006 level of 440,000 tons per year. Seattle's plan for reaching the goal includes five components. First, the city has begun to collect and compost food waste. “We have begun collecting food wastes from all single-family residences, and we're piloting programs for multifamily facilities and commercial businesses,” says City Councilmember Richard Conlin.

Second, the city is making progress in developing C&D debris recycling plans, Conlin says.

The third component calls for improving the recycling capabilities at the city's two transfer stations. Plans to renovate both facilities are in the works now. Fourth, the city has banned polystyrene foam food containers and placed a fee on shopping bags on an upcoming referendum ballot. And finally, the city has implemented a $100,000 fund designed to match funds spent by community recycling initiatives.

In the Beginning

While some cities have been working on zero waste initiatives for years, others are just starting. In January, Austin, Texas, adopted a zero-waste goal and retained a consultant to develop a master plan to implement the program. “We're at the beginning of this,” says Jessica King, the sustainability administrator in Austin's Solid Waste Services Department. “We have a policy that sets a goal of 90 percent diversion. Now we're working on a master plan that will develop the infrastructure.”

The city is considering many of the tactics in use in communities on the West Coast including, food and green waste composting, residential and commercial recycling, C&D debris recycling, and working to reduce food packaging and supermarket bags.

But the supporting infrastructure for these programs is in its infancy. For instance, the city promotes residential recycling by operating a “pay as you throw” program under which it charges for trash collection but picks up recycling bins free of charge. But few recyclers operate in Texas, thanks to the state's long history of landfilling. “We've begun to encourage recyclers to come here,” King says. In addition, the markets for Austin's recyclables have yet to be developed.

Another problem: While the city collects residential recyclables and trash, eight to 10 companies contract to collect commercial trash. “One of our jobs now is to make sure these haulers agree with the city's goals and promote recycling,” King says. “But we have to do that without disrupting their ability to earn profits. Again, that means developing recycling markets and talking to the commercial businesses about participating in the program.”

While the zero-waste movement has been developing for years in cities around the country, it remains relatively limited. But as landfill space becomes more expensive, as the cost of mining virgin materials continues to increase, as the need to conserve forests rather than cut them down grows more pressing and as the risks of global warming surge, zero-waste programs could take precedence in more and more communities.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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