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Clearing the Way for Zero Waste

Resource 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."

SIDEBAR: 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, consumers, businesses).
  • Rural and small communities will lead the adoption of zero waste strategies among government agencies.
  • 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.

SIDEBAR: 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:

  • Manufacturer Responsibility. Manufacturers and producers must share responsibility for recovering their products and ensuring that they are recycled and not wasted.
  • Minimum-Content Standards. Manufacturers need to help "close the loop" by using the materials collected in local recycling programs to manufacture new products.
  • Consumer Deposit Programs. Deposit programs on materials such as beverage containers, tires and batteries are effective strategies to promote reuse and recycling.
  • Unit-Pricing for Trash. Residents and businesses need to be given the incentive to reduce waste and recycle through variable garbage rates.
  • Full-Cost 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 business ventures.
  • Tax Shifting. Instead of giving incentives for wasting, tax credits and economic incentives should promote waste reduction and the use of recovered materials.
  • Campaign 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.

Source: GRRN web site:

Kivi Leroux is an environmental writer and editor based in Washington D.C. She can be reached at

© 2001, Kivi Leroux. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in print in Resource Recycling, March 2001. Reprinted on with the author's permission.

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