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Beyond Recycling

Last modified: March 22, 2019

"I have said repeatedly and will say it again, in 99% of the cases, the only reason companies, even the so-called 'better' ones, turn towards the ideas of sustainability is because of activism, boycotts, protests, litigation, and legislation. Without those constant pressures, there would be no corporate movement towards sustainability, as small and nascent as it is."
-- Paul Hawken, founder and former president of The Natural Step USA

As human populations and material use continue to increase, the natural systems that sustain us are suffering from accelerated degradation. Zero Waste is a new planning approach for the 21st Century that seeks to redesign the way that resources and materials flow through society, taking a 'whole system' approach. It is both a 'back end' solution that maximizes recycling and minimizes waste, and a design principle that ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Zero Waste embodies approaches that enable rapid waste reduction outcomes, breakthrough strategies rather than incremental change.

Zero Waste challenges the whole idea of endless consumption without needing to say so, and it enables even those who are locked into the system to challenge their own behavior in a positive way without immediately threatening it. Zero Waste poses a fundamental challenge to 'business as usual' by challenging the economic incentives in our political and economic system that reward waste. And Zero Waste addresses, through job creation and civic participation, increasing wastage of human resources and erosion of democracy.

The group spearheading the call for Zero Waste in North America is the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), a national network of waste reduction activists and professionals promoting the messages: Zero Waste; Create Jobs from Discards; and End Corporate Subsidies for Wasting. GRRN was founded in late 1995 by members of the Sierra Club, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the California Resource Recovery Association.

Peter Montague, editor of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, said recently of GRRN's Zero Waste Campaign: "Recycling is now the entry point into a critique of excessive consumption, waste, corporate irresponsibility, and the fundamental causes of environmental destruction. Zero waste has the potential to motivate people to change their life styles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways. This is a very exciting development. [It is] a key strategy for those opposing landfilling and incineration, deforestation, resource depletion, global warming, energy waste, loss of biodiversity, and the elimination of toxic products."

GRRN originally got the Zero Waste idea (via Dr. Daniel Knapp, president of Urban Ore in Berkeley, California) from the Australian Capital Territory of Canberra, which endorsed in 1995 a goal of 'No Waste by 2010.' Canberra determined to phase out its two landfills and replace them with 'recycling estates' in 15 years. In New Zealand, a third of all local government councils have now passed resolutions to work for 'Zero Waste to landfills by 2015,' and central government officials are increasingly interested in the potential of Zero Waste communities to lighten welfare rolls. Recently, the New Zealand Zero Waste Trust invited a GRRN representative to address local government officials on our efforts to promote Zero Waste and extended producer responsibility policies. GRRN has received international attention for our video, Zero Waste: Impossible Dream or Realistic Goal?, co-produced with Dr. Paul Connett, which has been distributed to more than 20 countries and translated into two languages (Japanese and Polish).

The Problem and the Opportunity
As the global economy makes ever-greater demands on the natural environment, political, business and community leaders around the world are pointing to our waste stream and recycling as areas of new business and employment potential. We need to look again at waste because it also represents a flow of materials and resources that adds great value to our economy. A new report released by GRRN, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, describes three basic drivers of change that are turning waste into a dynamic, fast changing, international economic sector:

1. Hazards of waste disposal The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that every landfill will leak. Swedish research now shows that the leachate toxicity of a landfill is still not benign after a thousand years. Even landfill professionals are now saying that we should assess the true costs of landfills based on looking after each of them for 500 years. In Creating Wealth from Waste, Robin Murray states, "Incinerator emissions of acid gases, mercury, dioxins and furans have led to widespread protests in North America, Japan and continental Europe, forcing the closure of plants and the abandonment of plans for new ones. In the U.S., 248 new municipal incinerators have been blocked and the number still in operation has fallen from 170 in 1991 to 119 in 1998."

2. Broader environmental concerns High levels of materials and energy consumption in industrial countries are the driving force behind the global ecological devastation that is a grave threat to mankind. Only 1% of the total North American materials flow ends up in, and is still being used within, products six months after their sale, according to industrial ecologist Robert Ayres. Resource extraction and production of raw materials consumes three times as much energy as manufacturing; manufacturing using recycled, rather than virgin, material saves substantial energy in virtually every case. Landfills are a major source of methane which contributes to global warming. Seventy-one tons of wastes are produced from mining, manufacturing and distribution of products and packaging for every ton landfilled today.

3. Economic problems and opportunities Perverse markets are major obstacles to creating a Zero Waste society. At the local level, the structure of market incentives is almost the exact reverse of the environmental policy hierarchy. In profitability, landfill is at the top of the scale, while recycling remains at the bottom. Perverse subsidies benefit extraction and processing of natural resources, which compete with recycled materials in the marketplace. A 1999 report by the GrassRoots Recycling Network and three other groups showed that 15 direct subsidies to virgin resource extraction and waste disposal industries in the United States will cost taxpayers $13 billion over five years. Lack of manufacturer responsibility for wasteful products and packaging further distorts price signals. Those responsible for producing the products and packaging that become waste are not the ones who pay for waste disposal, recycling and litter pickup, and thus have little economic incentive to reduce or eliminate product waste.

The immense inefficiencies of our materials use and waste production, coupled with the fact that increasing production efficiencies of our industrial economy create vast numbers of under-utilized people, suggest major business opportunities for using both people and natural resources more effectively. Eliminating waste can increase profitability, while cycling resources back into commerce creates local jobs.

Zero Waste Action Plan

In the public sector of the United States, GRRN has played a key role in advancing the idea of a Zero Waste society. GRRN's report advocating a Zero Waste agenda (Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000) was distributed to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2000. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, after reading the report, publicly advocated jobs from total recycling. GRRN members drafted the first comprehensive Zero Waste plan for Del Norte County, CA (published June 2000), and inspired the City of Carrboro, NC, and County of San Luis Obispo, CA, to pass resolutions embracing Zero Waste.

GRRN's goal is to reverse unsustainable practices and policies by continuing to build effective coalitions and partnerships for Zero Waste policies based on government and corporate accountability for waste. GRRN has identified the following outcomes as essential to move us towards a Zero Waste society: (a) Extended Producer Responsibility for Waste; (b) Consumer Action Against Wasteful Corporations; (c) Deposit Programs; (d) Jobs Through Reuse and Recycling; (e) Incentives for Reducing Trash; (f) Full-Cost Accounting and Life-Cycle Analysis; (g) Minimum Recycled Content; (h) Ending Subsidies for Extracting Virgin Resources; (i) Shifting Taxes from 'Goods' to 'Bads'; (j) National Resource Policy; and (k) Campaign Finance Reform.

By design, GRRN will stay a decentralized organization that will not always be the lead organization working to achieve progress on each of these outcomes; however, GRRN will be the lead organization that identifies, educates, supports and motivates other individuals and organizations to advance Zero Waste policies. Recognizing that the implementation of Zero Waste is a long-term, ambitious goal, a key component to our outreach is to educate other organizations whose work/mission might not be readily identifiable as impacted by Zero Waste.

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