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Moving the bar closer to zero
Originally appeared in the June 25, 2001 issue of Waste News
By Neil Seldman & Jane Buckley

A recent Waste News editorial and cartoon described Toronto's zero-waste goal as "pie in the sky" and blamed the city's politicians for not "walking the walk." In fact, Toronto's undertaking is not only well-intentioned, it is well-conceived and based on a model whose success has changed the course of resource management over the last 40 years.
The term zero waste is a misnomer. The full concept, as adopted by the GrassRoots Recycling Network, is "zero waste or darn close to it." This reflects the practical limits to eliminating waste entirely. But it retains the vision of waste management created by recycling and anti-incineration groups 40 years ago. In the 1960s, when industry and government said recycling was impossible, environmentalists said it was not just possible, it could be profitable. They argued that Americans would recycle if the infrastructure was created to support a comprehensive national program, and if standards and goals were set.

In the 1970s, these same public- and private-sector sources conceded that a 10 percent recovery rate might be achieved. In the 1980s, the bar was moved to 25 percent. By the 1990s, the national recycling rate had jumped from 6 percent to 30 percent, just short of the EPA's 2005 target of 35 percent. And cities and towns were recovering 40 to 60 percent of their waste streams. In school, at work and at home, 150 million Americans are participating in recycling programs once labeled pie in the sky.

The near-zero waste movement is simply moving the bar. Now more than ever, we have the data and technology to achieve this goal. Organizations such as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have published analyses that show the real cost of disposal, not just in terms of tip fees but environmental cleanup, lost remanufacturing jobs, resource depletion and increased energy consumption. Waste News' Municipal Recycling Survey illustrated that 21 cities are getting a substantial return on their recycling investment, as opposed to watching these resources go up in smoke. Such harsh truths about the high cost of disposal have prompted local, state and federal authorities to move toward comprehensive recycling.

Sixteen states have resource authorities that accumulate capital and invest in recycling, reuse and waste reduction. State and federal laws have established minimum recycled-content rules and procurement preferences that guarantee markets for high-recycled-content products. Communities are developing policies such as local bans, deposit and take-back programs and exchanges to promote recycling and reuse. As these programs stimulate participation, they generate feedstock for firms that process and remanufacture recovered materials. More markets mean more revenue from the sale of recyclables. More recycled-content products mean lower prices for green consumers and increased market share for green products. This means more joint ventures and employee-owned companies, more jobs in recycling plants, and increased wealth for low-income communities.

You say Toronto will need a greater commitment on the part of manufacturers to make near-zero waste a reality. You're right. But this is a 21st century version of the 1960s argument against recycling. Programs like "Zero Waste or Darn Close to It" raise industrial consciousness and expectations.
Will Toronto succeed by 2010? Probably not, depending on how much money the government dedicates to the program. Will they be closer to zero waste in 2010 if they make a serious commitment? You bet. Let's help them move forward, applaud their leadership and learn from their experience.

Seldman is president and Buckley is director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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