the Way for Zero Waste
Recycling, March 2001
by Kivi Leroux
A business leader, a consultant,
a local government official, and an activist share their perspectives
on what's next for the zero waste movement.
Six years ago, a group of
California recycling activists decided that the old "reduce, reuse,
recycle" mantra just wasn't cutting it anymore. Something bold and
new was needed to clearly link recycling with larger environmental and
economic issues--something that would reenergize both recycling professionals
and the public. After much debate and collaboration with other recycling
activists across the country, "Zero Waste" was born.
When the zero waste movement began to take off a few years ago, fronted
largely by the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), it was perceived by
many as a group of activists interested in rousing the public into consumer
action against corporate America's wastefulness. While many in the recycling
community still associate zero waste with GRRN's demands that Coca-Cola
increase its use of recycled content in PET bottles, zero waste as a concept
and as a movement is spreading beyond the picket lines. The term zero
waste and what it stands for are now just as likely to be discussed in
city halls and corporate boardrooms. The perspectives of four advocates
of zero waste-a business leader, a consultant, a local government official,
and an activist-forecast the future of the zero waste movement.
Defining just what the phrase zero waste means and making the term easily
understood in the public and private sectors alike is probably the movement's
biggest challenge in the next few years, says Jim Bosch, manager of environmental
services for Target Corporation and former chair of the National Recycling
Coalition's Buy Recycled Business Alliance. Just as recyclers debated
precisely what types of recovery constituted recycling and what qualified
as recycled content, zero waste advocates themselves do not always agree
on the best ways to describe zero waste.
For Bosch, waste is a measure of inefficiency. Therefore, zero waste is
about eliminating inefficiency, a concept that corporate America is much
more likely to embrace than the idea of giving up their garbage dumpsters
for good. Bush has incorporated this definition into Target's environmental
goals, and he believes that the zero waste movement will be more successful
in gaining corporate support if it characterizes zero waste in these terms.
The staff of the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, the first
municipality in the United States to adopt a comprehensive zero waste
plan, agree that terminology can be a difficult barrier. When developing
their zero waste plan, they had to convince local leaders that they weren't
talking about foisting a 100% recycling mandate on a rural, economically
depressed county. Instead, they described zero waste as a way of looking
at each product in the waste stream and examining what they could do locally
to either find a home for that material or prevent it from being discarded
in the first place. Far beyond setting up recycling programs, Del Norte's
definition of zero waste includes building community partnerships and
new job-creating enterprises and advocating for changes in public policy
and corporate behavior to significantly decrease the amount of material
the county is asked to dispose of each year.
Leadership in the zero waste movement over the next several years may
come from some unlikely places. For example, Gary Liss of Gary Liss &
Associates, one of the original architects of the zero waste message,
isn't surprised that Del Norte County was the first in the country to
adopt a zero waste plan. He suspects that more rural areas will follow
Del Norte's example and become the leaders in zero waste among local governments.
"The consumer-oriented campaigns were pursued initially by GRRN because
that was the way to quickly get the message across," says Liss. "But
what we are seeing now is that local governments have a strong interest
in zero waste too."
Kevin Hedrick, director of the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority,
found that the zero waste message resonated with local officials who perceive
garbage as an unfunded mandate-products and packaging come into their
community from manufacturers, regardless of their recyclability, and local
governments are obligated to manage the leftovers. "We found broad
support across a spectrum of [political] beliefs," says Hedrick.
"Our local leaders are forward looking, but they also understand
that [zero waste] doesn't have to happen right away. We are taking it
one year at a time."
Liss believes that rural areas that are interested in attracting grant
funding from state and federal agencies for economic development will
see zero waste as an innovative approach that can solve many problems-environmental,
economic, and social-at once. Del Norte, for example, received funding
for its zero waste plan from a program within the U.S. Forest Service
aimed at boosting local economies hurt by logging restrictions. By expanding
its local economy with reuse and recycling-based businesses, Del Norte
will also reduce the amount is must spend to manage and ship its waste
outside the county when its landfill closes in 2003.
Many communities are already implementing scattered pieces of the zero
waste agenda, but without any comprehensive plan. In the coming years,
local governments will more consciously use the tools available to them
in a well-considered, more thorough manner. "Local governments are
the ones writing the rules for solid waste management," says Liss.
"But now they are just copying the last contract instead of figuring
out what they really want to accomplish. We need contracts and policies
that tax bads, not goods."
As the zero waste message catches on in more communities, expect to see
communities restructure contracts and permits to reward businesses that
adopt zero waste approaches, while financially punishing those who do
not. Franchise fees, service contracts, permit conditions, and deposit
systems will be used to implement zero waste. Not only will local governments
adopt unit-based pricing for residential and business customers, but they
will also restructure solid waste management contracts and franchise fees
to ensure that recycling is more profitable than landfilling. Deposits
will be required for permits for building construction, special events,
and other activities, and these deposits will be refunded only when waste
prevention and recycling goals are met.
Neil Seldman, a board member of GRRN and president of the Institute for
Local Self-Reliance, believes that the growing field of deconstruction
is where these types of changes will occur most quickly. He expects to
see mandatory deconstruction rules attached to demolition permits. Seldman
also predicts that within the next few years, several communities and
states will adopt landfill bans on several items. Following trends in
the European community, Seldman also expect bans on PVC in several products
including medical supplies. Activists will continue to push for policies
that make manufacturers more responsible for their products, including
deposit and take-back programs and minimum content standards.
The evolution of recycling goals into zero waste goals will continue to
take place in the corporate community, if business people take the time
to communicate with their vendors and suppliers, says Jim Bosch. "When
waste is created, it is often from a lack of understanding of what is
really needed," says Bosch. For example, Target used to receive individual
pieces of clothing from its vendors bagged in plastic or packaged with
tape, clips, pins, chipboard, or tissue paper that had to be removed before
employees could fold or hang the product for display in the store. Removing
these materials and correctly folding and hanging the clothes created
huge piles of waste in Target's storerooms and required employees to rack
up unproductive hours on the clock.
With the "waste is inefficiency" motto in mind, Target's buyers
and its Asian vendors worked out a set of specifications for product delivery.
Now most of the clothing arrives "guest ready." Employees can
quickly move products from the back room directly to the store floor because
they are shipped the way Target displays them-without the extraneous waste.
Advocates of zero waste find themselves in much the same place as the
pioneers of curbside recycling programs found themselves more than twenty
years ago. "We are at the stage where we are demonstrating that zero
waste is a reality that is actually happening today. We are at the very
beginning of a ten- to twenty-year process of building zero waste into
a real, adopted strategy nationwide," says Liss. Which words best
describe what they are trying to accomplish, which approaches work best,
and who is ultimately responsible are all open questions. Advocates may
not agree on exactly how zero waste will come about, but they do agree
on one thing. "Zero waste is absolutely an environmental and economic
necessity," says Seldman. "Now, when we get there, that's a
question of debate."
On the Zero Waste Horizon
- Advocates will refine
their definitions of zero waste so the concept and its implementation
are more easily understood by different sectors (e.g. local governments,
- Rural and small communities
will lead the adoption of zero waste strategies among government
- Local governments
will reevaluate how existing tools-permits, franchise fees, contracts,
etc.-can be used to encourage zero waste.
- Activists will continue
to press manufacturers to take more responsibility for their products
and packaging, especially those without widespread, economically
viable recycling options.
- Corporations will
put more pressure on vendors and suppliers to eliminate waste
in their products and transport packaging.
The Future According to GRRN
The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) has identified
eleven policies and actions that it believes are required to achieve
zero waste. You can expect to find these policies on the agendas
of zero waste advocates nationwide over the next several years:
Responsibility. Manufacturers and producers must share responsibility
for recovering their products and ensuring that they are recycled
and not wasted.
Standards. Manufacturers need to help "close the loop"
by using the materials collected in local recycling programs to
manufacture new products.
Deposit Programs. Deposit programs on materials such as beverage
containers, tires and batteries are effective strategies to promote
reuse and recycling.
for Trash. Residents and businesses need to be given the incentive
to reduce waste and recycle through variable garbage rates.
Accounting and Life-Cycle Analysis. The benefits of waste prevention
and recycling should include a full accounting of the costs of
resource depletion, remediation, and environmental degradation
caused by the continued reliance on virgin materials and wasting.
- End Subsidies
for the Extraction of Virgin Resources. Subsidies for the resource
extraction industries should be eliminated.
- End Cheap
Waste Disposal. Landfills and incinerators must be subject to
strong environmental standards and must account for the true long-term
cost of waste disposal.
- Invest in
Jobs Through Reuse and Recycling. Waste prevention and recycling
provides tremendous opportunity to create jobs and initiate new
- Tax Shifting.
Instead of giving incentives for wasting, tax credits and economic
incentives should promote waste reduction and the use of recovered
Finance Reform. Much of the resistance to changing resource policies
comes from industries that profit from wasting.
- Take Consumer
Action against Wasteful Corporations. The public must put pressure
directly on corporations that profit from waste.
GRRN web site: www.grrn.org
Leroux is an environmental writer and editor based in Washington D.C.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2001, Kivi Leroux. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared
in print in Resource Recycling, March 2001. Reprinted on www.grrn.org
with the author's permission.