Approaches to and definitions of the term “zero waste” may differ, but one thing is clear: the concept has become an increasingly mainstream part of local government policy.
“Zero waste has taken over,” said Neil Seldman, former director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Waste to Wealth initiative. “Zero waste is now, I would say, conventional wisdom.”
However, the definition of the term and the strategies for achieving it can vary widely. While local government recycling initiatives and local efforts to reduce waste generation and disposal date back decades, the term zero waste first gained prominence in the United States around the turn of the century. 2000.
An ILSR story attributes the shift from phrases such as “total recycling” or “no waste” to the engagement of American recyclers with their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, who were pursuing their own efforts to the late 1990s. The Zero Waste International Alliance, organized in 2002, adopted in 2004 what it describes as “the first internationally accepted and peer-reviewed definition” of zero waste.
“Zero waste: the conservation of all resources through responsible production, consumption, reuse and recovery of products, packaging and materials without combustion and without discharges into the ground, water or air that threaten the environment. environment or human health.
The zero-waste momentum continued into the early 2000s as climate change became a bigger concern for local governments at the time, Gary said. Smooth, longtime city councilman and vice president of Zero Waste USA. Liss cited the 2005 Urban Environmental Accords (signed in San Francisco at a United Nations event) as a key milestone, as well as the 2006 climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
“It translated via the 2010 period in cities…discovering that solid waste was one of the quickest, easiest and most effective ways to fight climate change at the local level,” said Smooth. “It used to be a West Coast thing, especially for Washington and California, but now most major East Coast cities have embraced zero waste.
It can be faster to adapt waste management systems than other systems with large greenhouse gas emissions footprints, Liss said, such as transportation or energy. Another recent example of this emergence as a municipal climate priority is the C40 Cities initiative for zero waste, with more than two dozen major cities (including some in the United States) have signed up.
As more local governments set goals for zero waste or high diversion rates, it has also become clear that some goals will have a more direct effect on local waste systems than others.
Lily Baum Pollans, author of “Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities” and associate professor at Hunter College, said some cities can set goals but aren’t always ready to make the deeper changes needed for them. reach.
“Goals can be extremely helpful, but if the city isn’t willing to make the necessary investments, they’re not meaningful,” she said. “We need to reevaluate our expectations of the cost of systemic change.”
Pollans said some of the follow-ups may be affected by the turnover of elected officials who may have different priorities. But that’s not always the case, as its research on two specific cities shows: Seattle has maintained a focus on its waste reduction goals despite leadership changes, while Boston has had the same mayor for more than 20 years, until 2014, and saw little movement during that time.
Liss said political turnover can affect the pace or scope of zero waste efforts, but he thinks the general trend is “more and more communities are embracing it.” The growing prevalence of sustainability managers or related positions in local government can also help provide institutional knowledge, he added. For residents or city staff who want to see their governments embrace the idea, Liss suggested advocating at local meetings and starting with a single sentence of support for zero waste in climate action or plans. of sustainable development to move the discussion forward.
Cities can also learn from the zero-waste efforts of local businesses or universities, Liss said, which in turn can boost support for adopting local government policies. These policies may differ depending on what is possible in a given state – some state preemptive laws prevent local governments from banning single-use products, while others pass sweeping extended producer responsibility laws. – and can be adapted to reflect the values of a community.
While the most common definition of zero waste is a diversion rate of 90% or more, with many U.S. conservationists expressing a preference for the remainder going to landfills over other thermal disposal options, goals and policies vary. In some cases, city or county governments have passed favorable laws requiring mandatory organics collection or recycling of commercial buildings; in other cases, the objectives are non-binding documents.
Research on progress in major US cities shows that goals can be fluid, some more robust than others, but Liss said that shouldn’t be a reason to discount lofty goals.
“Goals have consequences, they mean something,” he said. “It should not be embraced and then ignored. Goals should be alive. They should be visible, transparent, achievable and reported on annually.”
The need for potential goal adjustments has become even more of a factor lately, as many cities saw their zero-waste efforts halted or hampered in the early years of the pandemic. According to Pollans, the initial shock to the system and the return to single-use products “reset some of the progress made not only in understanding the urgency of climate change”, but also “the role that solid waste management could potentially play. in the moderation of impacts”. .”
At the same time, Pollans cited Seattle as an example of how cities can benefit from keeping goals high even if they are not currently achievable.
“Trying to meet the targets, which are constantly exceeding their current capacity, has been a dynamic that has really propelled the city into more and more different sections of the waste stream,” she said.
For longtime supporters such as Seldman and Liss, the way forward is clear, regardless of short-term disruption.
“We think we’ve helped the country take a historic turn,” Seldman said, comparing it to the adoption of recycling programs in previous decades. “Now it’s just about making it as effective and reaching as many places in the country as possible.”
Seldman, recently retired from ILSR, is currently working on a cornucopia recycling program, in conjunction with Zero Waste USA, to advise up to 12 communities a year on their efforts. Some of these projects focus on shutting down massive combustion facilities (an ongoing topic of debate for some cities with zero waste goals) as well as developing more regional recycling markets.
While Liss said few cities have yet fully met their zero waste criteria, with target dates for many coming soon or already past, he said some have approached that level and the path forward will be unique in each. domain.
“Zero waste was not launched universally in one way,” he said. “It comes from a lot of different threads and different perspectives.”
Zero waste resources
The term zero waste encompasses several waste management practices, design principles and environmental philosophies. Zero waste plans can be more ambitious than operational plans for local solid waste management systems, with greater emphasis on how to push reuse, recycling and composting beyond current levels. These goals are increasingly intertwined with related topics, such as climate change, environmental justice and product design.
Communities, businesses and others wanting to learn more can find guidance in the resources below:
Research contributed by Ryan Call