By: Kate Delany

Zero waste is a new idea, but a bold one. It will change the very way a community and individual looks at their refuse – and use of resources. And it may be coming to a community near you!

Recently, the city of Austin, Texas rolled out new requirements for all food permitted businesses, requiring them to submit an Organic Diversion Plan to the city by February 1st. This plan may include on-site changes such as offering smaller portions, eliminating garnishes or unrequested sides, and selling day old baked goods or “ugly” produce. Food donation and composting, via commercial hauler or on site, is encouraged. Businesses must also provide bilingual signage and education on organic diversion. If on-site composting is used, composters must be no more than 25 feet away from landfill trash containers. According to the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, the city aims to divert 90% of its solid waste from incinerators and landfills by 2040.

In its work towards Zero Waste, the city of Austin is not alone. Though target dates and reduced waste percentages vary, a growing numbering of communities are joining the movement to reuse waste rather than burning or burying it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes municipalities and organizations as diverse as Oakland, California; Asheville, North Carolina; the County of Hawaii and the island territory of Guam as working towards Zero Waste. While their methods may differ, these communities are all transitioning away from landfills and incinerators and towards waste reclamation.

According to Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), Zero Waste means “Zero Waste or Darn Close.” The ZWIA’s recommended corporate policy affirms that following principles: “All discarded materials are resources. Resources should not be burned or buried. Goal is Zero Air, Water and Land Emissions.” The organization advocates for public education around Zero Waste and the opposition of new incinerators and phasing out of existing ones. Zero Waste communities should be reducing landfill waste by 1% each year, according to the organization. ZWIA also states, “For transparency, all communities must indicate in public pronouncements regarding their Zero Waste recognition what their current levels of diversion are, and what percentage of remaining discarded materials go to landfills or incinerators.” The Zero Waste International Alliance definition has been adopted by Arkadelphia, AR; Austin, TX; Burbank, CA; Glendale, CA; Oakland, CA; Oceanside, CA; Palo Alto, CA and Telluride, CO.

While skeptics may balk at the startup costs associated with Resource Recovery Plans such as the one implemented by Austin, Texas, Zero Waste Fort Collins, the organization that drafted a similar plan for Fort Collins, Colorado, presents opposing data. In their Road to Zero Waste Plan, the group estimates capital costs as approximately $12.5 – $16.5 million. However, they state that “[t]hese investments, along with the rest of the policies and programs recommended in this Plan, would contribute significantly to recovering the $6.5 million value of materials from the Fort Collins community that is buried in regional landfills every year. The alternative to these investments would be spending $20-$80 million on a new landfill once the Larimer County landfill closes in approximately 12 to 15 years.” Zero Waste Fort Collins anticipates that the initial cost to homeowners and businesses would be about $1 a month for the first several years while public education and culture change around waste are needed. The organization anticipates that the competitive marketplace would soon offer services such as curbside composting.

To achieve Zero Waste, culture shift and public buy in is key. As the Environmental Scientists Association (ESA) notes, the goal is “[o]ne half planning and implementation; the other half requires a shift in culture.” In its efforts to achieve Zero Waste, the city of Middletown, Connecticut asks residents to complete a Community Zero Waste Pledge. The pledge asks respondents to check off their commitment to do things such as “compost yard and food waste; donate usable items to charities or the Middletown Swap Shack, or use consignment opportunities” and “[r]eassess my consumption habits.” While these pledges are not enforceable, they are offered as awareness tools. Zero Waste Marin, which is working towards a goal of zero waste disposal by 2025, offers weekly compost services for all its residents, including those in apartments or condos. Their Food Scrap Flier and FAQs are accessible on the Mill Valley Refuse Service website and blog.

Last year, the national recycling rate was 34.6 percent, according to Resource Recycling, an industry publication. Clearly, more education and innovation is needed to help Americans “close the loop” and further embrace the ideas of reducing, reusing and recycling. The EPA’s Food Recovery hierarchy, an inverted pyramid that prioritizes the prevention and diversion of waste, can serve as a resource towards this end. Its tiered focus lists the alternatives of “Source Prevention; Feed Hungry People; Feed Animals; Industrial Uses: Composting” before landfills or incinerators. The EPA also runs a Food Recovery Challenges that awards corporate, civic or nonprofit participants for their work in preventing and diverting food waste.