A Zero Waste Community is Not Built by Government Alone

Eric Lombardi, Executive Director

March 14, 2016

7 Min Read
A Zero Waste Community is Not Built by Government Alone

We often look to government to create change. Back in the days of kings and queens, creating change was a simple as waving your scepter. Today, we still have many governments that lead toward Zero Waste through top-down programs. The European Union has numerous high-level initiatives to reduce waste, recover high levels of recyclable and compostable materials, redesign products without the use of toxic materials, and foster a transition toward a circular economy. But here in the U.S., the larger environmental movement has been about creating change from the ground up—citizens rallying together and working with government to enact programs, policies and infrastructure.

As an individual, or even as a local government official, you may not have the singular power to change the world, but groups of individuals do. Groups are a stronger reflection of the community’s interests and have more power to collaborate with public officials and staff. Plus, groups help you maintain momentum when you hit bumps in the road. And, to be the most successful, you need a community group, working in partnership with local government.

The “inside-outside” model for change:

The journey to begin building a Zero Waste Community should ideally be spearheaded by at least two Zero Waste Champions working together from both sides of the table. We call this the “inside-outside” partnership strategy. The inside Champion is from the public sector (either staff or elected) and the outside Champion is a citizen or citizen group. Let’s call them the Government Champion and the Community Champion.

We recommended this strategy for four reasons:

  1. We have first-hand experience in how successful it can be (see success story below).

  2. It is one of the most effective ways to bring together the two largest proponents for change in a community.

  3. It is a powerful community organizing tool because each side brings to the table unique power and ability for creating and communicating a new vision for the future.

  4. It establishes a platform for creating change that helps sustain momentum over time as the community progresses toward Zero Waste.

Eco-Cycle has used the inside-outside partnership strategy successfully for decades to grow our local recycling programs in a region where the economics are truly stacked against us—our costs to landfill are among the lowest in the U.S. and still less than $20/ton. So, it certainly wasn’t the free market that helped us achieve success in diverting material from the landfill. Our success has come from the partnerships between grassroots citizens’ groups, Eco-Cycle (a nonprofit) and our local governments.

Over the past four decades Eco-Cycle has brought to the table large numbers of citizens demanding change, as well as the technical expertise needed to execute that vision. Government brought its unique abilities to fund and regulate the local marketplace and support nonprofit organizations like Eco-Cycle, so that new programs could be created and supported for the long-term.

Inside-Outside Partnership Case Study

Here’s how the inside-outside partnership strategy worked to bring universal curbside recycling to Lafayette, Colorado, a town of 20,000.

If you want curbside recycling in most of Colorado, you have to pay an extra “subscription fee” each month for it. But not in Lafayette, where local citizens and a nonprofit organization worked together with the local government to bring a curbside recycling program to all residents bundled together with their trash service.

The story begins with a local nonprofit environmental organization, Eco-Cycle, that wanted a better, cheaper community curbside recycling system for local residents. Eco-Cycle pulled together some research about how other towns do it, and then met with the Lafayette Public Works Director (PWD). The PWD agreed with the vision Eco-Cycle presented, and suddenly there were two Zero Waste Champions in town, one inside the government (PWD) and one outside (Eco-Cycle).

Eco-Cycle, along with five local citizens who also wanted better recycling, organized a neighborhood house party where each person invited five other people, friends and family. The group meeting of over 25 people was a house party with food, drink and cookies, and where Eco-Cycle made a presentation about their vision for creating a better local recycling system. After the meeting, 15 people volunteered to create a new citizens’ group called “Lafayette Recycles.” The group decided that the next step was to host a community meeting in a local church to get more residents to join them.

As this was all unfolding, the Lafayette PWD was in touch with the citizen group and was meeting with the City Manager and explaining what the new group was up to and what they were seeking. The PWD made it clear to the City Manager that he was supportive of the call for a better recycling system in their town.

Before the big community meeting, members of the citizens’ group met individually with Lafayette City Council members at a local coffee shop to explain what they wanted and why. They also invited the City Council members to come to the community meeting and speak in support if they wished. All the City Council members declined the invitation to speak, but many said they would try to attend.

At the church meeting, about 70 people from the community showed up and presentations were made by Eco-Cycle, Lafayette citizens and a few high school students. The energy in the room was very positive, with only one citizen raising a concern about “government interference” with the marketplace. Half the members of Lafayette City Council showed up to listen, and, by the end of the meeting, each of them had stood up to proclaim their support for the project.

The next step was for the Lafayette PWD to present the City Council with a proposal on how to move forward. The Lafayette Recycles citizens’ group and Eco-Cycle worked with City staff to develop a proposal. The City Manager worked with the Mayor and other City Council Members to discuss the draft proposal before it was officially presented, which is standard City operating procedure. The proposal was presented and discussed at a City Council meeting, and a public hearing was scheduled for the next Council session.

By this time, the local trash hauling community had learned about what was happening, and they were not in support of it. There were many reasons for that, and Eco-Cycle had an educational session with the Lafayette City Council to discuss the relative merits of the trash industry concerns. By the time the public hearing happened, and the trash haulers protested publically about the changes proposed, the City Council members felt well-prepared to discuss and, in some cases, to counter their arguments.

At the public hearing, the concerns of the trash haulers and a few Lafayette citizens were aired, but the Lafayette Recycles citizens’ group had made sure that supporters of recycling also showed up to speak publically. By the end of the evening, the City Council had made an educated decision to move forward with the new program. The Mayor proclaimed that although they knew less than 100% of the community would support the change, they were elected to bring the greatest good to the greatest numbers, and the council believed this new recycling program would benefit over 90% of the community, and that made it worth doing.

Since then, the Lafayette City Council, staff and community have been extremely happy with their new curbside recycling program. In 2014, the inside-outside partnership strategy was engaged again to implement a new curbside composting collection program for the community. Today, Lafayette, Colorado has great civic pride in their commitment to building a Zero Waste community. The inside-outside partnership is still strong, and together they continue to create new Zero Waste programs, such as very successful community Zero Waste events.

The foundation of the inside-outside partnership strategy is twofold: (1) a trusting relationship and (2) a common vision and goal. That vision can be as discreet as creating a specific new community program, like the Lafayette curbside recycling, or as comprehensive as creating a Community Zero Waste Vision and Plan. The partnership can evolve over time as the community expands its policies, programs and infrastructure for building a Zero Waste system. 

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International.

About the Author(s)

Eric Lombardi

Executive Director, Eco-Cycle International

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International and has had a long career in community resource conservation, social enterprise development and non-profit (NGO) organizational management since 1980.

Lombardi ran Eco-Cycle, a nationwide pioneer in recycling, from 1989-2014, a developed it to become the largest community-based recycling social enterprise in the United States with a staff of 70 and processing of more than 50,000 tons of diverse recycled materials per year (2014). Lombardi is recognized as an authority on developing comprehensive community-based resource recovery programs and is often a keynote speaker and consultant on the social and technical aspects of creating a “Zero Waste–or Darn Near” society.

Lombardi has experience both nationally and internationally as a project consultant, keynote speaker and workshop leader for government and private sector clients across the United States, and in New Zealand, England, France, Italy, Scotland, Romania, American Samoa, Tobago and Saipan. He was invited to the Clinton White House in 1998 as one of the Top 100 USA Recyclers, and he co-founded the U.S. GrassRoots Recycling Network, and the Zero Waste International Alliance, based in Wales.

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