The Zero Waste Movement: It May be Coming to Your Town

The 2015 Paris climate agreement aims to bring about a global response to climate change. However, progress towards halting the global rise in temperature will require more than international agreement; it will require concerted action at the local level. One topic receiving increasing attention is the growing problem of waste and how the volume of stuff we throw away can be reduced.

The Impact of Municipal Solid Waste

Municipal solid waste (MSW), commonly known as trash or garbage, consists of everyday items, such as food scraps, newspapers, furniture, batteries, and more. This waste rots in landfills, with organic materials releasing climate-altering methane gas.

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According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report released in November 2016, Americans generated 258.5 millions tons of MSW in 2014—about 1.4% more than the amount generated in 2013. At the same time, the recovery for recycling rate has stayed pretty much flat, only increasing from 34.3% in 2013 to 34.6% in 2014.

With the amount of MSW increasing, the recovery rate for recycling staying almost the same, and the ever-growing threat of climate change, cities must lead the charge in the battle to reduce waste.

Cities With Zero Waste Programs

A new movement has begun in cities across the globe to reduce waste so that it effectively reaches the zero level.  This “zero waste movement” as it is called may sound ambitious, but some communities are hell bent on making it a reality. The table below lists a few U.S. municipalities that are well on their way to becoming “zero waste cities.”

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How They Plan to Achieve Their Goals

The cities listed in the table above have specific plans for achieving their zero waste goals, most within the next 20 years. Many of the cities are implementing new polices and ordinances to help reduce waste and increase recycling.

Some of the initiatives cities are taking include banning the use and disposal of certain materials (Styrofoam, plastic bags, etc.), creating more outreach and educational programs regarding recycling, and even enforcing recycling ordinances by imposing fines if residents fail to comply.

Some municipalities are, of course, further along than others. Below are some of the unique and in some cases bold ways each is tackling the problem.

Washington, D.C.

D.C. is rapidly gearing up to achieve its waste reduction goals. The mayor released the Sustainable DC Plan in 2013, which outlines proposals for achieving zero waste by 2032. While most of the measures are still in the development phase, the city has been taking steps to reduce waste immediately.

The Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act (Bag Law) in D.C. requires retailers that sell food or alcohol to charge customers five cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag. In a 2013 study conducted by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, 80% of district residents indicated they had reduced bag use since the fee was introduced in January 2010, 76% of businesses claimed they were using less disposable bags overall since the law went into effect. The Foundation found that the bag fee had a positive impact on the behavior of residents and that there was overwhelming amount of support for the law.

The mayor has proposed to implement a law similar to the bag law with plastic and glass bottles, citing that it has already been proven as an effective means of recovering the material for recycling in states like Maine and Hawaii.

The mayor also proposed a Pay-As-You-Throw system for waste collection services. This initiative will would apply to all households served by District waste collection services. The concept of the program is similar to utility bills in that you only pay for what you use, it provides a direct incentive for people to recycle more and generate less waste.


San Diego

Cities in California enjoy the advantage of statewide laws that encourage recycling and waste reduction. A few examples are a beverage container recycling law and the Used Mattress Recovery and Recycling Act, requiring mattress manufactures to establish a recycling program to discard mattresses. The most recent waste reduction law approved in California  occurred during the November 9 election.  A majority of voters supported Proposition 67, which imposes a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags.

Beyond state requirements, San Diego has waste reduction and recycling initiatives of its own. The adoption and implementation of the City Recycling Ordinance (CRO) and Construction and Demolition Debris Deposit Ordinance (C&D Ordinance), along with other waste diversion programs have also put San Diego on the path to successfully meeting its zero waste goal by 2040.

The CRO requires recycling of materials generated from residential facilities, commercial facilities, and special events. CRO requires haulers to report the volume of recycling services provided. Reports show that the volume of recycling service to customers increased by 90% between 2008 and 2012.

The C&D Ordinance requires certain building and/or demolition project applicants to post a refundable deposit to ensure compliance with the ordinance, which requires diversion of at least 50% of C&D debris generated by the project. The overall recycling rate since implementing the refundable deposit is 71%.

Seattle

The City of Seattle did extensive research before determining how they’d be successful in cutting down on waste. In 2010, the city implemented mandatory commercial recycling containers for all businesses producing more than 10 cubic yards of waste disposal a week. The idea was considered after the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, used the strategy in a study, and the result of the study showed high levels of diversion.

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Have you ever thought about how much food waste you dump into the trash each day? In Seattle, it is illegal to do so.  As of January 1, 2015, a food waste ordinance took into effect that prohibits residents from putting food scraps, compostable paper, yard waste, or recyclables in their garbage. Residents are subject to a fee on their waste bill if more than 10% of any of the above is found in their garbage. However, the ordinance has caused some controversy. In April, a judge found it unconstitutional and a violation of privacy for trash haulers to look through citizens’ trash; therefore, in order to impose a fine, the waste must be clearly visible to the collector as they are not permitted to open trash bags and inspect them.

Portland

Portland is ahead of the game when it comes to reducing waste. While a growing number of cities are banning polystyrene foam containers, Portland was among the pioneers in this area, having imposed its ban way back in 1990! Even Dunkin Donuts, who relies on foam cups to serve its iconic brand of coffee, used non-foam cups for serving coffee. 

Portland continues to find innovate ways to increase recycling. In October 2011, the city expanded its successful curbside collection program to include yard debris and food scraps. It also provided weekly recycling pick up, while decreasing trash pick up to every other week. A year into the system, 38% less waste was headed to the landfills and three times more yard debris and food waste was turned into compost!

Austin

The City of Austin is trying a market-oriented approach to encourage recycling and achieve their zero waste goal.

In 2014, the City of Austin launched Austin Materials Marketplace. The Marketplace is an online database where materials needed and available are posted and trades are facilitated. They also held forums and launched a campaign partnership with “I Want to be Recycled.” In its 2014 Annual Report, Austin Resource Recovery announced that 39.81% of city-collected materials had been diverted from landfills, compared to 39.58% in 2013, and 55,923 tons of recycling was collected, compared to 54,206 tons in 2013.

In addition to the market approach, Austin is also instituting ordinances making recycling containers more widely available on private property. Effective October 1, 2017, the Universal Recycling Ordinance will require all property owners to provide recycling services to tenants and employees. Each property owner is also required to submit an annual waste “diversion plan” for approval. The plans must show how much recycling capacity is available on the property (number of containers, how often serviced, etc.).

Los Angeles

Like many cities, Los Angeles is tackling its waste problem on several fronts. In November 2013, the city adopted the Los Angeles County Green Building Standards Code. The move was prompted by the California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen), the first statewide green building code in the nation. The LA code states that residential construction projects must recycle a minimum percentage of debris, based on the amount of dwelling units. It also states that any non-residential construction projects, regardless of square footage, must recycle a minimum of 65% of debris.

The city has struggled to combat littering and illegal dumping. In 2015, the City Administrative Office released a 47-page report, “Improving Livability in Los Angeles,” containing recommendations for tackling the issue. The report recommends increasing the amount of trash and recycling containers available in the city, especially in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, to reduce litter. It also recommends greater enforcement of illegal dumping laws, and altering the funding mechanism to cover expenses. The report noted that the city receives a startling 390,000 reports per year of abandoned furniture and other bulky items being left on the streets.

New York City

New York City unveiled the re-fashioNYC program in 2011 in an attempt to save the 200,000 tons of textiles that New Yorkers send to landfills each year. The program offers textile collection for buildings with 10 or more units. Once the bins are full, a city employee transports the bin to local nonprofits that sell the textiles domestically and internationally. According to an article, over 50 tons of textiles were collected in the first six months of the program. planet aid

NYC is also closely tracking their progress to zero waste. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a report released earlier this year, just a year after the OneNYC plan, that 685,000 tons of waste was diverted from landfills in 2015, a 5% increase from the previous year. He credited this progress to the expanded curbside collection program, the new recycling program, updated city regulations, and the expansion of electronic waste collection.

Boulder

Don’t care to recycle? That’s not an option in Boulder. The city adopted a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance in June 2015, making it a requirement for residents to subscribe to waste hauling services. The ordinance also says that property managers provide trash and recycling services to their tenants, and all businesses must separate recyclables and compostables from trash. Also listed under the ordinance, landlords who own rental properties in neighborhoods that occupy University of Colorado students, must sign up for "six-day review," a special trash collection period in August for student move-in, which includes twice per week recycling collection. The aim is to address and hopefully mitigate the the volumes of trash generated during move-in times.

The Universal Zero Waste Ordinance has been proven effective so far. The city reported a total waste diversion rate of 39% in 2015, compared to 34% in 2009. There was also 60,736 tons of waste diverted from landfills, compared to 43,412 tons in 2009.

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