Beyond the obvious benefit of reducing waste in landfills, zero waste communities give life to the idea of being able to eliminate the need for hauling waste. It may seem like a pipe dream, but it’s one more communities are buying into.
In fact, at the United States Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting last June, the organization adopted a resolution in support of municipal zero waste principles and a hierarchy of materials management. The USCM has adopted several resolutions over the past 25 years supporting recycling and composting, but the 2015 document was more encompassing: It started with the manufacturing process and called upon Congress to incentivize the use of recycled over virgin materials.
What is “zero waste?” According to Eco Cycle Solutions of Boulder, Colo., zero waste is a plan that “redesigns our systems and resource use from product design to disposal to prevent resource depletion, conserve energy, mitigate climate change, reduce water usage, prevent toxins creation and stop ecosystems destruction.”
A zero waste community doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Implementing a phased-in, 10-year plan can set a community on the road to achieving it.
Eco Cycle Solutions has developed a roadmap for communities to use to stay on the right path and ensure they reach that desired destination of zero waste. Program Manager Kate Bailey spoke about why everyone should enact such a plan now.
“Communities are seeing more value for zero waste than the environmental reasons — there are also economic reasons,” she said, explaining that working towards a zero waste plan allows cities and towns to control their costs and to create jobs. “The governor of Michigan said recycling doubles jobs, and several states across the Midwest and the south are realizing that recycling creates 10 times more jobs than a landfill.”
As for environmental and climate benefits, reducing waste in landfills may be the fastest, most cost-effective way to stop changes to the climate. “These are things that can be implemented now that will help,” Bailey added.
While more communities are recycling and making it easier for residents to do so well, the nation as a whole is still only at 34 percent. Interest has increased of late in composting, though, and the Environmental Protection Agency is working on a national goal to reduce food waste.
Bailey called attention to a new movement, “Beyond the Blue Box,” that gets people thinking about composting and innovative ways to reuse and repurpose, as a means of job creation. She cited the example of Springback Colorado Mattress Recycling in Denver.
Mattresses are on the hard to recycle list, but Springback cuts the old mattresses apart and repurposes the materials. To perform the labor it hires convicted drug felons who have been through rehabilitation and are in need of a job and stability to decrease the chances that they will become repeat offenders. The employees make custom dog beds and other items from part of the old mattresses, and other components can be recycled by mattress manufacturers.
“It’s keeping mattresses out of landfills and creating jobs,” Bailey said. “But there’s so much more we could be doing. There are huge opportunities to create jobs and reduce waste. Just throwing things in a landfill is a very uncreative thing to do.”
Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores are another good example. Home improvement items and excess building materials are donated to Habitat, which sells them at a discounted price.
“We need to ask, ‘how do we get the best value for our stuff?’” Bailey said.
The Weather Channel recently listed 10 cities working towards being zero waste communities. The majority are on the West Coast, but there are good things happening on the East Coast as well.
Vermont has been a zero waste leader, boasting a goal for 2020 of every citizen having access to recycling and composting. The state also enacted a law that’s driving food donations, because restaurants, hotels and schools are actively looking at whether the food they are about to dispose of can go to someone else. Massachusetts enacted a food waste ban for the same entities, requiring they either compost food waste or donate it. In November, Arlington, Va., joined the party by approving exploration of a plan designed to move the city toward a goal of being 90 percent waste free by 2038.
Most communities offer some recycling options for residents. Composting facilities are the next easy-to-implement focus of a zero waste plan.
“In the early 1990s, 20 states had composting facilities for yard waste — leaves, brush and grass clippings — so it’s just expanding them for food waste,” Bailey said.
Admitting there are odor concerns with food waste, she noted that installing an anaerobic digester like those used in wastewater treatment plants helps eliminate the odor. They also produce biogas to create green energy. Educating the public on the details of “sell by” dates on canned goods will support the effort as well.
Bailey said there’s a perception that trash and recycling collection should be free. But landfills aren’t free to operate, and most local entities have a landfill fee. That’s a good thing.
“If people don’t see a trash bill, there’s no incentive to reduce trash,” she said. Where people do pay, though, it’s usually the same fee whether for one bag or four. “That’s not how we charge for other utilities.”
Sometimes called pay-as-you-throw or polluter-pays plans, funds from plans with more stringent pay structures can then be used for education or for building new recycling facilities.
Rather than thinking of a single bottom line, Bailey encouraged communities to start thinking of a “triple bottom line” — the benefit to the environment and climate, jobs creation and reusing materials.
“We need to change our accounting system to better reflect the true cost,” she said. “We’re seeing large and small urban and rural communities moving towards zero waste, which is good for jobs as well as the environment. We’re excited about that.”