Many local governments have decided to aim for zero waste. The coming years will require significant upstream and downstream progress for cities to achieve their goals.
“I think the underlying issue around many zero waste plans is skepticism about actually implementing the plan,” said Alex Danovitch, director of environmental services company Nothing Left To Waste. He said there were also concerns ‘that the plan will just sit on the shelf’ or that cities will tackle the ‘low-hanging fruit’ like maximizing recycling diversion, but not moving up the pecking order. and make system-wide changes.
But as the years pass and zero waste planning evolves, cities share more information about overall planning and effective results.
The most successful zero-waste plans are those that take the time to make a thorough public commitment, Danovitch said. Aligning with environmental justice communities, for example, wasn’t even part of zero waste planning 20 years ago. A key part of this process is identifying what a community’s larger goals really are, he said.
“A zero waste plan is not an empty trash can. It’s about what the community is really trying to achieve: clean air and clean water; just and equitable communities,” Danovitch said. This process informs where a community should prioritize investments, he said.
Linking zero waste to other priorities like climate goals is proving effective, said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a policy advocacy group in Washington state. “There are some cities in the United States that are ahead of the curve because they also have climate change imperatives … and so a lot of zero waste goes hand in hand with that,” Trim said.
Likewise, “I think being able to frame actions as a climate tool or a social justice tool allows for a broader comparison [of the cost-benefit ratio] when you don’t compare things to landfilling, recycling or composting,” Danovitch said.
A more holistic view also applies to how communities then measure success – an evolving conversation around which metrics are tailored to encapsulate zero waste progress. “Just because something is in the recycling bin doesn’t mean it has the impact you would assume,” Danovitch said.
“A zero waste plan is not an empty trash can.”
Director at Nothing to Lose
It’s not just who is involved in engagement and development that matters, it’s who is involved in implementation.
Experts continually point to the challenge of cities lacking life cycle control and disposing of much of the resources within their borders. One underused strategy that could help is public-private partnerships, said Kristyn Oldendorf, associate director at sustainability consultancy Anthesis Group.
Oldendorf, who served as head of Baltimore’s waste diversion office until earlier this year, noted that while cities need to collect and manage materials, companies are demanding more and more recycled content. Although the public and private sectors have different roles, the goals are linked, “so it’s important to be able to have those conversations and understand each other’s goals,” Oldendorf said.
“Cities cannot do this alone. And they are not responsible for all the waste produced and do not know what to do with it,” Oldendorf said. Companies with purpose can help cities: “It can look like funding, but it can also be direct partnerships for education, collection programs, infrastructure – I think there’s just a lot opportunities for collaboration.”
While recycling and zero waste efforts have encountered many obstacles – National Sword, the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing issues, consumer skepticism – there have also been recent signs of private and public sector investment in recycling infrastructure.
“I think it proves that recycling is going in the right direction and the infrastructure will continue to grow,” Oldendorf said. “So there are a lot of challenges, but I also see things developing in a positive way.”
Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA, also noted the “unprecedented” legislative and financial support from Congress in recent years. US EPA in november open Recycling and waste grant applications worth $100 million included in the 2021 infrastructure package.
Going forward, there is momentum around local and state policy around strengthening recycling markets, organics management, single-use item reduction, and product stewardship.
But politics is not the answer everywhere. While exchanging learnings with other cities is helpful, comparing ratings with local governments in policy-forward jurisdictions from California to the EU can be vexing, a said Amanda Jordan, Circular Economy Project Manager for the City of Phoenix. The city is preempted by the state of Arizona to ban single-use plastic bags, for example.
“Policy and legislative levers are not things that we often rely on or pursue…everything we have to do is voluntary,” Jordan said. “I would really like to see more stories about non-political solutions to really encourage not only our own city, but other people who are in the same boat, that there are other solutions that could be used to allow this type of work.”
In this vein, an example is grassroots mobilization around organic products in areas where there are no government-sponsored programs, according to author and scholar Lily Baum Pollans.
“This is one of the areas where I’m most excited because I see the most transformative change happening,” said Pollans, author of “Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities” and professor associated with Hunter College. .
One of the main objectives of Phoenix is to develop a localized circular economy. And while the pandemic has disrupted many waste diversion programs for the worse, it could also prove to be a catalyst for the adoption of more resilient local systems.
“Post-COVID, we’re really seeing the effects of these large-scale supply chain disruptions in such a globalized world,” Jordan said, inspiring the city to keep materials in its own region to serve as raw material for neighboring businesses.
Jordan predicts that the future of circular economy work is local. “Hopefully in the next five or ten years it will be sort of the norm that there is this localized element in circular economy work.”
Reporting provided by Cole Rosengren