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Beyond Recycling!
Zero Waste …Or Darn Near

by Eric Lombardi
EcoCycle, Inc.

September, 2001

There is a sea-change underway in how the world thinks about "putting out the trash." Consider that in just the last six months:

  • In Japan, riot police were called out to quell a neighborhood uprising against an extension of a local landfill.
  • The Philippines implemented the first national moratorium on incinerators.
  • Australia, New Zealand, and Toronto have made official public proclamations indicating their commitment to achieve Zero Waste by 2020, 2015, and 2010.
  • The United Kingdom established a substantial new fund to support new landfill diversion programs.
  • The European Union began moving toward the banning of all organic materials in the landfills.
  • 30 nations (but not the United States) have implemented "Take Back" laws which make industry either financially or physically responsible for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging.

Why is so much suddenly happening around the world, including Latin America and Asia? Could it be that the world is facing up to the facts of groundwater pollution from landfills, toxic air pollution from the burning of waste, and angry citizens organizing ever more into effective groups to protest these violations? These unavoidable realities are driving the search for a large-scale alternative to burying and burning society's discards.

An additional factor at play is that the limitations of the recycling revolution of the 1990's are now apparent; despite the fact that more than 100 million Americans are now recycling, the "wasting" rates in the United States are climbing again. The simple truth is that recycling is only an end-of-pipe solution to a problem that has its beginning at the front end of the pipe…on the designer's desk.

You can call us slow learners if you wish, but for some of us who have been working in the resource conservation business for the last 20-plus years, there is a quiet "eureka" emerging about the truth of the problem of waste. We have always assumed that waste was inevitable, and that our job was simply to reduce and minimize it as much as possible.

The lesson we have learned, however, along with some industry partners, is that waste is not inevitable - waste is the result of bad design, and ultimately, the result of bad decision-making. The idea of "designing waste out" of our world is a dramatic paradigm shift in how we value and manage our natural resources, and we've given the idea a name: "Zero Waste…or Darn Near."

The last few years have been very exciting and invigorating for many of us as we have watched Zero Waste develop into an umbrella concept that leads upstream to the designer's desk with far-reaching social and environmental ramifications. A Zero Waste strategy speaks to all environmental protection interests - air, water, soil, species, etc - and can help create new positive alternatives to how we use our dwindling natural resources. At a recent GrassRoots Recycling Network retreat in Colorado, Peter Montague, the editor of Rachel's Environment & Health News, observed, "You all are using the word recycling, which is innocent and apple pie, but what you're really talking about is turning the whole industrial system of the world on its ear. And this is a great opportunity to break the moribund environmental movement in America."

So what exactly is Zero Waste? Specifically, Zero Waste has five basic tenets:

Redesigning products and packaging. Planning in advance to limit product resource consumption, toxicity, and waste, and recovering materials through reuse, recycling, or composting - designing products for the environment, not for the dump.

Producer Responsibility. Manufacturers are held responsible for the waste and environmental impact their product and packaging creates, rather than passing that responsibility on to the consumer. The end result is that manufacturers redesign products to reduce materials consumption and facilitate reuse, recovery and recycling.

Investing in Infrastructure, Not Landfills or Incinerators. Rather than using the tax base to build new landfills and incinerators, communities can continue to invest in new facilities designed to take the place of a landfill or incinerator. Combined with social policies and market signals, the technological advances of the 1990s can easily support the diversion of 90% of society's discards.

Ending Taxpayer Subsidies for Wasteful and Polluting Industries. Pollution, energy consumption and environmental destruction start at the point of virgin resource extraction and processing. Manufacturers use virgin resources for raw material partly because tax subsidies and other social policies make this a cheaper and easier alternative than using recycled or recovered materials. Additional public subsidies exist to keep "disposal" costs through landfills and incinerators artificially low by not assigning significant economic penalties to the harmful emissions produced by these facilities.

Creating Jobs and New Businesses from Discards. Wasting materials in a landfill or incinerator also wastes business opportunities that could be created if those resources were preserved. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance's report Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, "On a per-ton basis, sorting and processing recyclables alone sustains ten times more jobs than landfilling or incineration." The report points out that some recycling-based paper mills and recycled plastic product manufacturers employ 60 times more workers on a per-ton basis than do landfills. The report adds, "Each recycling step a community takes locally means more jobs, more business expenditures on supplies and services, and more money circulating in the local economy through spending and tax payments."

EcoCycle has fully embraced the Zero Waste model as our policy lighthouse to guide us through the fog of conflicting waste industry interests. As one of the largest non-profit, community-based recyclers in the country, we are working with our thousands of local supporters and volunteers to spread the Zero Waste message, and have found them eager to embrace this next step beyond recycling. And why not? Is there really anything to like about landfills or incinerators? As Jean Paul Sartre said after a lifetime of seeking the meaning of life, "The root of all significance lies in comparison." So, which do you choose?

Eric Lombardi is the Executive Director of EcoCycle, Inc., based in Boulder, Colorado. He is a leading national spokesperson for Zero Waste.

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