A Pew survey in 2014 showed that 71 percent of Americans said the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” However, the places that America is getting stuck are spending the money needed to protect the environment and in exercising the politics to change harmful business-as-usual practices.
Fortunately, in the waste sector, there is already plenty of money in the system (over $50 billion) so the what we need to do is not spend more, but spend differently. And since we won’t be changing everything overnight due to the immense sunk costs in the existing system, we have time to transform the business of discard management to take advantage of the new paradigm which says, “We don’t have a waste problem, we have a resource opportunity.”
There is a list of cities that includes Seattle, San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., that are 21st century sustainability all-stars. They have created new rules to redirect the waste industry away from landfills and incinerators, and they have created the political environment necessary for system-wide change.
Now that these activities have been going on for a couple of decades, the rest of us don’t have to recreate the wheel to follow their lead because there are new “how to” resources that shows what every city and town can do to get started on their own community journeys toward a waste-free future.
One of the new resources out there is the Community Zero Waste Roadmap a guidebook for local leaders and champions of sustainability. It is a compact blueprint (43 pages) that has gathered the successes and experiences from communities around the nation and packaged them into a three-phase, 21-step, 10-year path for achieving a 90 percent landfill diversion rate. The roadmap is a living document and is being updated and improved as more communities implement it.
The document lays out clearly where we need to go and suggests that a community could become a zero waste community within 10 short years. That may be an overly ambitious timeline, but the point is that it is certainly achievable within 20 years, thus there is no defensible reason to not get started today.
The first important step according to the roadmap is to declare that the pursuit of a zero waste future is the official public policy in your community. It can be done by establishing goals, or even as simply as passing a council resolution declaring that the pursuit of zero waste is your community’s new policy. This public step into the zero waste arena begins a powerful series of discussions and events which lead eventually, hopefully, to the end of writing “solid waste management plans”—and instead to the writing of “zero waste community plans.” The act of changing a few words can make a huge difference in what happens next.
The Community Zero Waste Roadmap is not radical or difficult to embrace. It is a tool designed to channel our best available strategies into the public sphere. A community that adopts the plan is one that is thinking globally and acting locally, thus becoming part of the solution and less of the problem. The big trends of our day—greenhouse gas emissions, soils depletion, resource wars and the lack of employment—all addressed by implementing local zero waste systems. But the same cannot be said about our competition. The burying and burning of our discarded resources makes all those global problems worse.
The new facilities needed to achieve zero waste are all shovel-ready, and the new rules for changing business-as-usual are all market tested. The young engineers and entrepreneurs of the world are ready and excited to begin building careers in zero waste economy, knowing that they will be helping to protect our environment, conserve global resources and earn a piece of that $50 billion “discard management cash” that is flowing around us. I am often a guest lecturer in college business classes, and I’ve seen the spark in their young eyes when they hear about this future option and the possibility of becoming a zero waste millionaire!
When it comes to waste, our choice is simple: Every day we get either closer to or further from a zero waste future. We can choose to sustainably use our limited resources, so we can support future generations. We can choose to reduce our climate impact and build resilient communities. We can choose to invest in green jobs and our local economy. Or, we can continue to throw away our “trash” and with it all these opportunities for positive change.
There is work to be done: facilities to be built, new rules to be written for the marketplace, training classes to be attended, community plans to be written—and a good starting point is the roadmap.
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.