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One Man's 20-Year Pursuit of Zero Waste in America

Article-One Man's 20-Year Pursuit of Zero Waste in America

We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the birth of “Zero Waste” in America.

It was 1996, on the plaza in front of Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta. A rowdy group of 25 marched with signs and chanted slogans that “Coke Broke Their Promise.” I was the guy with the bullhorn explaining to the local press, and the Coke executives gathering in ever-greater numbers, that recycling was no longer enough and that a new vision, called Zero Waste, was the path forward. And that path included Coke using 10-percent recycled content in their bottles, as they had promised during the infamous Cola Wars years earlier.

The last 20 years fighting for Zero Waste have been just as Gandhi famously described the paths for social change: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” The acceptance of Zero Waste during the past few years has been exhilarating, especially in the large business sector. Across the United States and many other nations, such as Italy and Scotland, the actual implementation of Zero Waste strategies has grown every year and is now commonplace enough that it’s losing its edge. And that is one reason I am writing this column.

True Zero Waste is actually quite revolutionary. It speaks to the whole cycle of how we design, produce, use and discard the resources, products and packaging of our lives. It is not a simplistic fix, such as “zero landfilling.” Nor is it as simple as “100-percent recycling.” Both of those goals are a part of a larger story that begins with design–the design of how we interact with our material world so that it uses less resources, eliminates toxic materials, builds things to last, and is then easy to reuse, recycle or compost at the end of its intended uses. That is the big vision we were dreaming on the steps of Coca-Cola 20 years ago and the vision still worth fighting for today.

Daring to "dream in public" is what we were doing, a phrase attributed to Naomi Klein, author of “This Changes Everything." For me these words are like a sword attacking the cynicism we find in the public forum all around us–in the media, in our public meetings and in our politics. If you are a parent, as I am, you know what this corrosive pounding is doing to the spirits of our young people.

I want to push against that trend not in a pollyannaish way, but by celebrating the real progress we as a society and world have made in how we view the concept of “waste.” The march toward Zero Waste is actually one of the few good news stories in the world, and it’s really just begun.

Today, there are thousands of citizens, governments and businesses working to bring Zero Waste to their communities, and now there are online resources to support these changemakers and inspire others to get on the road to Zero Waste. One of these is the Eco-Cycle SOLUTIONS Hub, which provides the vision, plan, tools and network needed to make Zero Waste a reality for any community in a 10-year timeframe. The project is nonprofit and has been funded by the recycling social enterprise Eco-Cycle (Boulder, Colo.) and WhiteWave Foods (Denver).

And finally I want to invite those remaining skeptics who insist that “zero waste isn’t possible” to let it go and join the rest of us on the journey to see how close we can get! The original definition of Zero Waste that my pioneering cohort created in 2002 when we created the Zero Waste International Alliance in Wales was that a 90-percent landfill diversion rate was good enough to qualify as a Zero Waste success. Our reasoning was that such a number represented a real and substantial change away from business as usual, and once achieved then the last 10 percent would be much easier to design out of the system.

So I invite everyone reading this to get on board with the idea that Zero Waste is a journey, not a destination, and that the promotion of “Zero Waste…Or Darn Near” is what we need today to shake the recycling industry out of its current slumber and get back on track changing the world for the better.

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle International, a nonprofit advocacy organization that helps communities convert their waste management activities into community zero waste systems.

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