Recycling's Great Leap Forward

In its three years in business, Denver's Technology Recycling (TR) has kept 100 tons of obsolete computers out of landfills, translating into almost 15 tons of lead that our ancestors won't have to deal with. Last October, the company expanded nationwide, offering its services in 60 American cities.

Illustration: Jerry Russell

The fact that companies like TR can make a profit, even prosper, by recycling electronic gear once automatically destined for the landfill is part of a sea change in American waste management. With Europe to point the way forward, it's gradually dawning on us that we can go beyond simply recycling our bottles and cans.

By sweating, innovating and pushing, America's recyclers have reached a 28 percent national recycling rate. Local recycling programs have tripled since 1990, and now total more than 9,000. We're close to diverting a third of our solid waste from landfills. But with curbside recycling and collections alone, even the most dedicated communities will never achieve more than a 50 to 60 percent diversion rate.

The idea of “zero waste,” if not its tangible achievement, is this issue's cover topic. A small but dedicated network of activists is trying to drive this concept home, and it's yielding results. The very corporations that generate the most waste, interestingly enough, are making some of the most progress—internal 90 percent recycling rates are something to boast about, and to profit from.

Zero waste got started in the city of Canberra, Australia, which adopted “No Waste by 2010” as a slogan in 1995, and it quickly spread to New Zealand, which has endorsed it nearly country-wide. “Zero waste challenges the whole idea of endless consumption without needing to say so,” says Bill Sheehan of the GrassRoots Recycling Network. “It enables even those who are locked into the system to challenge their own behavior in a positive way without immediately threatening it.” In other words, it can work from within to make dramatic changes.

There is yet no political groundswell in the U.S. to adopt European-style anti-packaging laws, and practically no likelihood of support for it under President George W. Bush. But the fear of such “producer responsibility” legislation evolving out of energetic grassroots campaigns has caused some companies to take voluntary action. Sony, for instance, has launched a pilot program in Minnesota to take back electronic waste, and the European mandates are a prime motivator.

That kind of pressure is extremely effective. To quote Natural Capitalism author Paul Hawken, “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.”

We can't afford to stand still, because the waste piles in this wasteful society keep getting bigger. In the seven years between 1990 and 1997, for instance, plastic packaging grew five times faster by weight than did the plastic recovered for recycling, and the story is similar for glass and aluminum. We're backsliding in our recovery of beverage containers and other consumer waste. There are no easy answers, but in zero waste we have the makings of a new framework for thinking rationally about a big problem.

Jim Motavalli