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Reprinted from the May-June, 1997, newsletter of Garbage Reincarnation, Inc., Santa Rosa, CA.

By Linda Christopher

"Zero Waste? Impossible," you may say. And zero waste is inconceivable when the problem is pictured as a big pile of garbage and the solution is to -- somehow -- get rid of it. The possibilities seem difficult, expensive, and far away.

Erase that pile of garbage and create a new picture; one of minerals and ore, forests and crops, rivers and land, and the brand new useful products that garbage was made from before we mixed it together. When we turn the definition of garbage on its end and look at what it was made of, the challenge changes form: how will we preserve and mange under-used resources, not how will we get rid of them.

The path to zero waste is not just more recycling of trash. It is to extract the maximum usefulness out of all the energy and resources we use, because waste occurs when we don't use resources efficiently. An executive from Dupont illustrates "Every time we eliminate a pound of waste, it will most likely end up in a product." This is not a strategy of getting rid of or recycling waste, but of using resources to their full potential so waste is not created in the first place. (Which is just another way of illustrating why we should reduce and reuse before we recycle.)

Unfortunately, government subsidies for extracting resources are a lucrative reward for inefficiency (i.e. waste). When we thought coal, oil, and timber were unlimited, government created incentives to maximize development of coal, oil, and timber industries. When we thought ecosystems had unlimited ability to absorb the effects of pollution and depletion, industry didn't give a thought to the impacts of extraction. As a result, the federal government sells timber, mineral rights and electricity not just below market value, but actually lower than taxpayers' costs for building logging roads and producing power. So, taxpayers subsidize businesses that squander resources, instead of businesses that create lost of jobs.

Not only do we subsidize resource consumption, we subsidize waste disposal as well, making it too cheap to dump under-utilized resources before their time. If consumers and manufacturers paid the true cost of disposal, they would be even more motivated to keep these materials out of the waste stream.

Ironically, the pollution and destruction from subsidized logging, mining, and waste disposal is often cleaned up at taxpayer expense insulating those who profit and benefit from the resources/ products from the full costs of their activities. Those costs are always passed on to others who may or may not benefit from these activities. Of course there will never be an economic incentive to preserve the environment if those who destroy profit while others pay.

So, we are wasting our breath talking about zero waste while we're paying other (1) to use up the resources, (2) to collect their waste below cost and then (3) to clean up the mess they make in the course of making a profit. The biggest roadblock to zero waste is that there is very little economic incentive to do the right thing. When we make it profitable to eliminate waste, everyone will scramble to do it.

We know that being more efficient makes sense. Logically, it is in everyone's best interest to protect the environment since in the long run our jobs, profits, and quality of life depend on it. So, how can we make zero waste and resource conservation a reality?

Zero Waste - or something pretty darn close to it - requires an economic system that rewards people and business for doing what is right: reduction, reuse, and source separated recycling to maximize resource efficiency and reduce waste. So, we need a tax system that encourages us to use what is plentiful - labor and imagination - and conserve what is finite - irreplaceable natural systems. Zero waste means jobs instead of waste and pollution.

The result directs economic activity and tax benefits away from things we don't want like acid rain, contaminated drinking water, topsoil erosion, damaged fisheries, toxic dumping, and polluted rivers, so we can encourage things we do want like jobs, services, clean water, renewable energy, quality long lasting products and a healthy planet.

-- Linda Christopher is currently with the Materials for the Future Foundation in San Francisco.

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