What is zero waste?

Guest blogger, Tanya Anderson, is a Coalition partner through the Sustainability Series.

What is zero waste? Fifteen years ago you might not have found an answer to that question. Today, a Google search will yield more than 40 millions results. On February 21, a crowd gathered in Jackson’s Home Ranch Exhibit Hall to learn more about how to reach zero waste. Eric Lombardi, the Executive Director of Eco-Cycle since 1989, traveled from Boulder, Colorado to present.

ZeroWaste-Ecocycle-Recycle

Zero waste means that 90 percent of waste is recovered through recycling and composting. The remaining 10 percent is processed and stabilized before heading to a landfill. Lombardi was quick to point out that zero waste is not zero landfill. Waste to energy plants can greatly reduce landfill waste, but they produce emissions worse than those from coal burning power plants. Furthermore, they actually encourage production of waste, their feedstock, to justify the high cost of the facilities.

Lombardi defines zero waste as “a social issue first, and a market issue second”.

From a market standpoint, zero waste is a way to cash in on the $11 billion worth of resources that are buried annually. Zero waste is good business sense!

The social issues of waste stem from impacts to our environment, such as the leaching of toxic chemicals from landfills into water supplies and the impacts of climate change. These are externalities that are not included in the current cost of waste disposal, but that our children will have to pay for later. Lombardi believes zero waste is “an ethical and moral responsibility to our children”.

Lombardi outlined how communities can reach 50 percent waste diversion in four years, through increased access to services, organics collection (composting), pay as you throw pricing for trash, and education. Paying for the amount of trash disposed of, rather than having a set fee per month, encourages consumers to make better choices and rewards those who work to reduce their waste.

To move beyond 50 percent recovery requires policy changes such as construction and demolition recovery mandates, product fees, disposal bans, and extended producer responsibility laws.  Boulder, Colo. now charges a 10-cent fee for plastic bags in stores, and Fort Collins is looking at banning cardboard from its landfills.  In Europe, extended producer responsibility laws put the responsibility for recycling on manufacturers, not individuals.  New European Union laws require that 80 percent of the materials used in products that have a plug are recyclable.

As San Francisco recently reached 80 percent waste diversion and other communities are close behind, the dream of zero waste is becoming a reality.  With a 15 percent diversion rate in 2012, Teton Valley is still a long way from zero waste. However, Fresno, California was able to move from a 29 percent diversion rate to 57 percent in just two years (calrecycle.ca.gov). With a little work, couldn’t we do the same in Teton Valley? To start, we need both increased participation in our current programs and a plan for the future. Contact tetonrecycling@gmail.com to find out how you can help.

Tanya Anderson is the executive director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information, visit www.tetonrecycling.org. Information for this article came from Eric Lombardi of ecocycle, www.ecocyle.org.

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