Zero Waste

Reduced to a raw material, metal waste has considerable reuse value.&copyp; Corbis
No Longer Content to Just Recycle Waste, Environmentalists Want Us to Reduce it to Nothing

On October 18, the nation’s most colorful governor, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, took the podium at the Riverfront Radisson in St. Paul and announced a radical new program to reduce the state’s waste stream. For the next five years, he said, Sony Electronics had agreed to fund a program that will take back for recycling any and all outdated Sony products currently in the hands of state consumers.

Recycling of beverage containers is slipping, leading to calls for more statewide bottle bills.© Jason Kremkau "Generation Past"

Though Minnesota has not, like Massachusetts, banned TV and computer cathode ray tubes (CRTs) from its landfills, Tony Hainault of the state Office of Environmental Assistance says there has long been sentiment there to get old electronics out of the waste stream. “CRTs are the largest source of lead in the municipal waste stream,” he says, “and printed circuit boards are the second.” In a one-year program ending last year, Minnesota collected and recycled nearly 600 tons of used electronics.

Sony’s program, which will spread to five other states in 2001, is the first of its kind in the United States. But such examples of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are business-as-usual throughout Europe, where the concept of legislatively mandating manufacturers to take responsibility for the waste they create has taken firm root. For a determined group of environmentalists, Sony’s voluntary initiative was the first success of many in what they see as a developing national movement toward zero waste. The phrase is not to be taken literally, but as a goal that emphasizes source reduction ahead of managing waste.

Recycling is America’s favorite environmental activity—100 million of us do it every day—but while there have been dramatic successes in many areas, overall recycling rates have declined slightly. An impressive 53 percent of plastic soda bottles were recycled in 1994, but only 35.6 percent in 1998. So why are these environmentalists so confident? Because, they believe, reducing the waste stream to a mere trickle is in everybody’s interests, even benefiting the very corporations that have been screaming the loudest about the burden of recycling. Sony’s president and chief operating officer, Fujio Nishida, showed considerable foresight when he declared, “Taking back and recycling products helps Sony design future devices that cost less to manufacture and help save our precious natural resources. It’s a win-win situation.”

“Where should we aim after 2000?” asks Gary Liss, a California-based zero waste consultant. “Do we stop at 35 percent or 50 percent recycling and build landfills and incinerators to handle the rest of our waste? Or do we continue to build on the tremendous success of the past decade and work to eliminate waste at the source?”

A Powerful Push

As a concept, zero waste has come a long way in a very short time. Eric Lombardi, executive director of Boulder, Colorado’s very successful Eco-Cycle recycling program, says that the current U.S. movement grew out of heated board discussions in the early 1990s at the mainstream National Recycling Coalition (which has corporate membership). “Half the group saw the value of the European EPR model and half did not,” Lombardi said. “We’d say that corporations should use 25 percent recycled content in their products, and they’d reply that it wasn’t economically feasible. Ultimately, we decided that coalitions are not a great place for getting anything done.”

n 2001, Sony will have programs operating in six states to retrieve and recycle any and all of its consumer electronics, including lead-heavy televisions and computer monitors© Courtesy of Sony

That experience led directly to the formation in 1996 of the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) as the U.S. advocate for zero waste. “We needed a group that wouldn’t get bogged down, that was free to push the envelope,” Lombardi says. And pushing the envelope is exactly what GRRN does. The group’s national coordinator, Bill Sheehan, has led the network in a protracted and effective campaign directed at Coca-Cola, which made—and failed to keep—a 1990 promise to use 25 percent post-consumer waste in its plastic beverage bottles. While Coke has not capitulated, it has agreed to use 10 percent recycled content in a quarter of its bottles, making 2.5 percent total content.

Further pressure on both Coke and Pepsi is coming from a group of socially responsible investors, including Walden Asset Management and the As You Sow Foundation. The shareholders filed a resolution in late November asking the companies to not only use 25 percent recycled content in their bottles, but also to put their weight behind recycling programs to achieve an 80 percent recycling rate for their beverage containers (two out of three of which are now landfilled).

“Zero waste is about challenging the ruling paradigm that says we can manage waste safely in landfills and incinerators,” Sheehan says. “All the elements of a zero waste system are there, and it’s a question of bringing them together. We believe that some public officials will get the vision and start piecing it together.”

One city that seems to be “getting it” is Seattle, which in 1998 adopted zero waste as a guiding principle in its solid waste plan. “This principle entails managing resources instead of waste,” the city said in a resolution, “conserving natural resources through waste prevention and recycling; turning discarded resources into jobs and new products instead of trash; promoting products and materials that are durable; and discouraging products and materials that can only become trash after their use.” Two California counties have also adopted zero waste goals, as has Carrboro, North Carolina.

New Zealand has become a nation of can-do recyclers, with 25 local councils taking part in a Zero Waste New Zealand Trust pilot program. Corporations are also making dramatic waste-reduction gains.©Courtesy of Zero Waste/New Zealand Trust

There is growing conviction in solid waste circles that conventional recycling has gone about as far as it’s likely to go without fundamental, society-wide changes. “Communities like Seattle and Minneapolis have expended a lot of resources and hit a ceiling at around the 60 percent recycling rate,” says Sheehan. “Going beyond that is very difficult, and the primary barriers are the lack of manufacturer responsibility and the non-level playing field that subsidizes wasting.”

In a report called “Welfare for Waste,” GRRN has documented 15 tax and spending subsidies that directly benefit three industries—forestry, petroleum and mining—whose products directly compete with recycled material. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that public subsidies for virgin materials puts recycling at a competitive disadvantage,” says Sheehan.

Europe Leads

In 1996, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development recommended that U.S. businesses adhere to what it called “extended product responsibility.” Priorities are considerably different in Europe, where extended producer responsibility is a given and in many cases, the law. The difference between the two concepts is large enough to drive many truckloads of waste through. The Clinton administration considers waste a shared responsibility between government, industry and consumers. In Europe, the onus is on the companies that produce it.

America"s solution to its gigantic waste problem has been to landfill it, wasting valuable resources and creating a mountain of trash.©Photodic/Steve Cole

In some ways, voluntary efforts like Sony’s in Minnesota are an effort to head off mandatory government programs like those in Europe. “The European programs won’t necessarily be cost effective,” says Mark Small, S

ony’s vice president of environment, health and safety. “We’re trying to get a program up and running that will make both environmental and business sense.” An internal Sony document, leaked to reporters last December, detailed its efforts to monitor environmentalists and “cripple” efforts to pass electronic recycling laws.

When Germany adopted its Packaging Ordinance of 1991, it was stepping off into uncharted territory. The law, says Bette Fishbein, senior fellow of the New York-based group INFORM Inc., shifted “the costs of collecting, sorting and recycling used packaging from municipal government to private industry,” a revolutionary policy that “sent shock waves around the world that reverberate to this day.”

Packaging waste accounted for about a third (by weight) and a half (by volume) of all the landfilled waste in Germany, and that’s why it was the first category to be addressed, although other planned initiatives are targeting electronics and vehicles. Germany’s landfill space crisis—a problem it shares with many other European countries—made such a radical solution not only necessary but politically palatable as well.

The packaging law required deposits on packaging and take-back by retailers (a system similar to the bottle bills in 10 U.S. states), but it gave manufacturers an important “out” in allowing them to design their own recycling program. Industry did, devising the Duales System Deutschland (DSD), which adds a second bin for packaging waste to the German household. Packaging bearing the now-famous “Green Dot” logo is collected, sorted and recycled, with costs borne by the producers.

In a 1998 report written for Pollution Prevention Review, Fishbein reports that during its first four years, the Green Dot program cut packaging consumption in Germany by a million tons. To avoid higher costs down the road, manufacturers lightened their packages, eliminated unnecessary packaging (like boxes within boxes), and marketed their products in more concentrated forms. While it’s impossible to make a direct comparison, during the same period U.S. packaging increased by 13 percent.

Despite its successes, the Green Dot program has been criticized by some environmentalists because it’s being run by the corporate sector, and by industry groups that claim it’s too expensive for the results achieved and unnecessary as well. The European Organization for Packaging and the Environment, a business trade group, charged that “the idea of a rising mountain of packaging waste” is, in fact, “a myth.” In the early years of the program, there’s no doubt that it recovered too much waste for Germany’s recycling infrastructure; critics claimed that Green Dot was simply exporting the country’s problems. These complaints have since been resolved with a larger domestic recycling capacity.

Dennis Martin, director of winemaking at Fetzer Vineyards, with compostable corks. Fetzer has reduced its garbage outflow by 93 percent since 1993, and aims for zero waste by 2009.© Courtesy of Fetzer

Green Dot spread to the 15 member states of the European Union in 1994 with the adoption of a less-stringent Packaging Directive, and various programs are starting up. In England, for instance, 4,500 businesses that each handle more than 50 tons of packaging per year have registered with environmental agencies. Variations of the Green Dot are in place all over the world, including programs in Poland, Hungary, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. In Finland, for instance, an EPR law has been in effect since 1997, and for 2001 it aims to reuse or recycle 82 percent of packaging waste, and prevent another six percent from being created in the first place. In Argentina, a proposed law would label any packaging that isn’t recyclable or reusable as “hazardous waste.”

The world leader in mandating zero waste may well be New Zealand, which launched a national pilot project in 1999 to put major waste reduction into place on the level of the country’s local councils. Zero Waste New Zealand Trust received an overwhelming response. Designed for the participation of 10 councils, by mid-2000 the project had 25, each funded with a $25,000 (NZ) grant. According to Warren Snow, a Trust trustee, significant waste reduction is already being recorded across the country. One district, Opotiki, says it has cut landfilling from 10,000 tons to 3,500 per year, and expects to recover 80 percent of municipal waste by November. In the second half of 2000, six stores in Auckland achieved zero waste status and no longer have dumpsters on their premises. In one example, shoe buyers at The Warehouse are asking suppliers to stop stuffing shoes with paper, and that alone has reduced the store’s waste stream by 15 percent. “New Zealand has a history of doing things before the rest of the world,” says Snow. “It was the first country in the world to give women the vote, the first country to have a national nuclear-free policy and is on the way to being a waste-free country.”

Electronic and vehicle recycling is moving ahead elsewhere as well. In Holland, a law that went into effect in 1999 requires computers, appliances and other equipment to be taken back by their manufacturers. Italy has required refrigerator takeback since 1997, and is working on regulations for other appliances. Norway’s program, adopted in 1999, has very ambitious goals. Japan’s law, covering many electronic products, goes into effect this year.

The European Union has also drafted legislation for end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), and sets an 80 percent recycling rate for 2005. As Fishbein describes it, car owners would be required to obtain a “certificate of deregistration” confirming that their vehicle had been legally recycled.

A Long Way to Go

Anyone reading through that long list of international accomplishment will be struck by how far behind the United States remains. But the situation may soon change, as considerable ingenuity is being applied to the colossal task of reducing America’s waste stream—by far the largest per capita in the world. The U.S., with just five percent of the world’s population, uses 25 percent of its resources. In 1997, Americans threw out 430 billion pounds of garbage, or 1,600 pounds for every man, woman and child. The GRRN report “Wasting and Recycling in the U.S. 2000” indicates that between 1990 and 1997 plastic packaging grew five times faster by weight than plastic recovered for recycling. And according to Ecology of Commerce author Paul Hawken, 94 percent of the materials used in the manufacture of the average U.S. product are thrown away before the product even reaches the shelves.

It’s plain that recycling alone can’t hope to significantly shrink that mountain of trash. Brenda Platt of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance says the key is to stop thinking about waste as a problem and to start thinking about it as an opportunity—in effect, from waste to wealth. “We’ve been documenting record-setting waste reduction programs on the local level,” she says. “Some communities, like Seattle and San Jose, have achieved 65 percent reductions.”

One of the keys is composting. Peter Anderson, chairman of the National Recycling Coalition’s policy group, says that 15 percent of the U.S. waste stream is food and another 35 percent is unrecoverable paper, like fast food wrappers soaked in fryer oil. “All of that can be composted, and if we separated it from dry waste and got it out of landfills, we’d be half way to zero waste.”

Platt agrees. “You have to get the organics out of the waste stream. And that doesn’t mean just leaves in the fall, but yard clippings year ‘round. And if you target only newspapers, bottles and cans, you’re addressing 15 percent of the waste stream. You have to go beyond that to include things like oil filters and textiles.” Many communities have found themselves with dramatic savings by the simple expedient of unit-pricing their garbage, a procedure commonly known as “pay as you throw.” The end result of such whole cycle thinking, she says, may not be zero waste, but it will be pretty darn close.

Source reduction can be extremely cost-effective. Platt says that moving beyond 50 to 60 percent recycling rates can be expensive, but communities can actually save money by reducing waste at the source. “They actually begin to reduce trash so much they can cut some garbage pickup and shift personnel to recycling—they no longer need two parallel staffs.” Platt is the co-author of an Institute report that concludes that sorting and processing recyclables sustains 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incinerating.

Some of the new ideas add whole new dimensions to the phrase “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Gary Liss, for one, is an advocate of resource recovery parks, several of which have sprung up in California. The idea, he says, is to create one central location for recycling, composting and reuse facilities, together with manufacturing and retailing. The goal is to allow the public to instantly recover value from their waste, while also shopping for goods made from that waste. As in industrial parks, the businesses can share management, space, operating equipment, maintenance and even advertising expenses.

In Berkeley, California, a former steel pipe manufacturer has been transformed into a 2.2-acre reuse demonstration project called Urban Ore, featuring departments that retail building materials, hardware, arts and media equipment, as well as a general store. Urban Ore hopes to add satellite businesses that will rebuild and upgrade old computers, make countertops out of recycled glass, and fashion unique items from scrap steel.

“We are using our materials very inefficiently today,” says Liss. “We could produce 100 times the products with the same resources if we were looking at the total system on a holistic basis. And it doesn’t have to be altruistic.” Liss cites zero waste initiatives that are already underway at such companies as Xerox (which calls its program “Xero Waste”), Fetzer Vineyards and Hewlett-Packard. Here are some industry standouts:

  • Oregon-based computer printer maker Epson recycles 90 percent of its materials, and disposes of the rest at a waste-to-energy facility (which produces only 10 percent residue for landfilling);
  • California’s Fetzer Vineyards has reduced its garbage outflow by 93 percent in the last seven years, and is aiming for zero waste by 2009. The vineyard composts 12 cubic yards of corks and 10,000 tons of grape seeds every year;
  • Mad River Brewery, in Blue Lake, California, diverts 98 percent of its waste from landfills, which leaves only enough garbage to fill two 90-gallon cans per week. In 1998, the beer company’s waste reduction efforts saved it more than $35,000. The company takes back six-pack containers and donates plastic grain packaging for remanufacture into reusable shopping bags;
  • Pillsbury’s baking operations in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, divert 96 percent of their waste, and the company is aiming for 100 percent. The company recycled or reused enough paper in 1999 to save 200,000 trees, 82 million gallons of water and 48 million kilowatts of electricity. Pillsbury uses rented or recycled shipping pallets, and recently increased the recycled content of its folding cartons to 50 percent;
  • Xerox, based in Rochester, New York, has adopted the Waste-Free Factory as its ideal. It’s not there yet, but in 1998 the company’s worldwide recycling rate reached 88 percent, saving the company $45 million.

There are dozens more examples. Lowell Paul Dairy of Greeley, Colorado, sells milk in returnable and refillable bottles. Collins & Aikman, carpet makers of Dalton, Georgia, actually achieved zero landfill waste in 1998 while the company was increasing production by 300 percent (without increasing energy use). The Amdahl Corporation, a computer software business in Santa Clara, California, has achieved 90 percent waste diversion since 1990.

Legislatures can make waste diversion easier by writing it into law. The disposal ban is gathering force with Massachusetts’ decision to stop allowing cathode ray tubes into its landfills. (New Jersey is also considering such a ban.) By 2010, Massachusetts wants to reduce municipal solid waste by 70 percent statewide. Some 23 states ban some or all yard waste from its dumps, 32 states refuse to accept tires, and 16 states ban large appliances. California’s San Diego County bans materials it deems recyclable. According to Zero Waste America (ZWA), “Recycling goals do not stop waste disposal. Recyclables can end up in landfills and incinerators if there is no disposal ban in place.”

Lynn Landes, ZWA’s Pennsylvania-based founder and director, is a vigorous proponent of disposal bans, and she says there would be more of them in effect if the federal government were doing its job. Landes takes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to task for failing to enforce the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1976, which required all states to develop individual plans to maximize waste reduction and recycling. Although there was a 1980 deadline, many states never developed plans. The law itself hasn’t been enforced since 1987, when the Reagan administration defunded it. Landes notes that even without funding, the law is still in effect and the EPA could be sued in federal court for ignoring it.

Bottle bills are hardly a new idea, but they remain a highly effective legislative approach to reducing landfill clutter. Oregon was the first state to put a cash deposit on cans and bottles, in 1970, and California was the most recent, in 1986. Since then, though some cities have inaugurated bottle redemption on their own (most notably, Columbia, Missouri), the number of bottle bill states has been frozen at 10, despite the fact that the laws are extremely effective. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), in deposit states an average of 80 percent of beverage bottles and cans are recycled; in non-deposit states, that figure is only 40 percent. “Beverage containers are five percent of the waste stream, and with bottle bills we can get them to near-zero waste,” says Pat Franklin, CRI executive director. “If we add deposits in 19 other areas, one for each five percent, the zero waste goal would be in sight.”

As Sheehan points out, 55 percent of all recycled containers come from the 10 states with bottle bills. Curbside collection, he said, is no guarantee that bottles or cans will actually be recycled, since a high percentage of such collections are contaminated. “Bottle bills give people a financial incentive to recycle, and the containers collected at redemption centers are clean, giving them a much higher value in the marketplace,” Sheehan says.

Why haven’t more states adopted bottle bills? Chalk that up to the incredible lobbying power of the bevera

ge industry, which uses an organization it funds heavily, the anti-litter group Keep America Beautiful, to wave the anti-bottle-bill flag. The industry also creates grassroots groups to fight its battles on the ground. In Washington, D.C., for instance, a beverage industry front group called the Clean Capital City Committee spent a record $2.3 million in 1987 to convince voters that a proposed bottle bill would amount to a hidden tax, would mean higher prices for consumers, lost sales and lost jobs. The bill, favored by 70 percent of voters at the outset of industry’s campaign, was ultimately defeated by a 10 percent margin.

Since corporate America increasingly treasures a green image, it no longer openly fights environmental initiatives, though its heft behind the scenes is considerable. It has so far successfully dodged responsibility for packaging waste; fought off bottle bills; and protected its right to pollute in a myriad of ways. At the same time, these corporations have proven highly vulnerable to embarrassing media campaigns that expose the wolf behind the sheep’s clothing. And a handful of activists are attacking the pressure points, making the case for zero waste in America.