Resource Recycling  [Printer-friendly version]
March 15, 2001


by Kivi Leroux

A business leader, a consultant, a local government official, and an
activist share their perspectives on what's next for the zero waste

Six years ago, a group of California recycling activists decided that
the old "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra just wasn't cutting it
anymore. Something bold and new was needed to clearly link recycling
with larger environmental and economic issues--something that would
reenergize both recycling professionals and the public. After much
debate and collaboration with other recycling activists across the
country, "Zero Waste" was born.

When the zero waste movement began to take off a few years ago,
fronted largely by the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), it was
perceived by many as a group of activists interested in rousing the
public into consumer action against corporate America's wastefulness.
While many in the recycling community still associate zero waste with
GRRN's demands that Coca-Cola increase its use of recycled content in
PET bottles, zero waste as a concept and as a movement is spreading
beyond the picket lines. The term zero waste and what it stands for
are now just as likely to be discussed in city halls and corporate
boardrooms. The perspectives of four advocates of zero waste-a
business leader, a consultant, a local government official, and an
activist-forecast the future of the zero waste movement.

Defining just what the phrase zero waste means and making the term
easily understood in the public and private sectors alike is probably
the movement's biggest challenge in the next few years, says Jim
Bosch, manager of environmental services for Target Corporation and
former chair of the National Recycling Coalition's Buy Recycled
Business Alliance. Just as recyclers debated precisely what types of
recovery constituted recycling and what qualified as recycled content,
zero waste advocates themselves do not always agree on the best ways
to describe zero waste.

For Bosch, waste is a measure of inefficiency. Therefore, zero waste
is about eliminating inefficiency, a concept that corporate America is
much more likely to embrace than the idea of giving up their garbage
dumpsters for good. Bush has incorporated this definition into
Target's environmental goals, and he believes that the zero waste
movement will be more successful in gaining corporate support if it
characterizes zero waste in these terms.

The staff of the Del Norte Solid Waste Management Authority, the first
municipality in the United States to adopt a comprehensive zero waste
plan, agree that terminology can be a difficult barrier. When
developing their zero waste plan, they had to convince local leaders
that they weren't talking about foisting a 100% recycling mandate on a
rural, economically depressed county. Instead, they described zero
waste as a way of looking at each product in the waste stream and
examining what they could do locally to either find a home for that
material or prevent it from being discarded in the first place. Far
beyond setting up recycling programs, Del Norte's definition of zero
waste includes building community partnerships and new job-creating
enterprises and advocating for changes in public policy and corporate
behavior to significantly decrease the amount of material the county
is asked to dispose of each year.

Leadership in the zero waste movement over the next several years may
come from some unlikely places. For example, Gary Liss of Gary Liss &
Associates, one of the original architects of the zero waste message,
isn't surprised that Del Norte County was the first in the country to
adopt a zero waste plan. He suspects that more rural areas will follow
Del Norte's example and become the leaders in zero waste among local
governments. "The consumer-oriented campaigns were pursued initially
by GRRN because that was the way to quickly get the message across,"
says Liss. "But what we are seeing now is that local governments have
a strong interest in zero waste too."

Kevin Hedrick, director of the Del Norte Solid Waste Management
Authority, found that the zero waste message resonated with local
officials who perceive garbage as an unfunded mandate-products and
packaging come into their community from manufacturers, regardless of
their recyclability, and local governments are obligated to manage the
leftovers. "We found broad support across a spectrum of [political]
beliefs," says Hedrick. "Our local leaders are forward looking, but
they also understand that [zero waste] doesn't have to happen right
away. We are taking it one year at a time."

Liss believes that rural areas that are interested in attracting grant
funding from state and federal agencies for economic development will
see zero waste as an innovative approach that can solve many problems-
environmental, economic, and social-at once. Del Norte, for example,
received funding for its zero waste plan from a program within the
U.S. Forest Service aimed at boosting local economies hurt by logging
restrictions. By expanding its local economy with reuse and recycling-
based businesses, Del Norte will also reduce the amount is must spend
to manage and ship its waste outside the county when its landfill
closes in 2003.

Many communities are already implementing scattered pieces of the zero
waste agenda, but without any comprehensive plan. In the coming years,
local governments will more consciously use the tools available to
them in a well-considered, more thorough manner. "Local governments
are the ones writing the rules for solid waste management," says Liss.
"But now they are just copying the last contract instead of figuring
out what they really want to accomplish. We need contracts and
policies that tax bads, not goods."

As the zero waste message catches on in more communities, expect to
see communities restructure contracts and permits to reward businesses
that adopt zero waste approaches, while financially punishing those
who do not. Franchise fees, service contracts, permit conditions, and
deposit systems will be used to implement zero waste. Not only will
local governments adopt unit-based pricing for residential and
business customers, but they will also restructure solid waste
management contracts and franchise fees to ensure that recycling is
more profitable than landfilling. Deposits will be required for
permits for building construction, special events, and other
activities, and these deposits will be refunded only when waste
prevention and recycling goals are met.

Neil Seldman, a board member of GRRN and president of the Institute
for Local Self-Reliance, believes that the growing field of
deconstruction is where these types of changes will occur most
quickly. He expects to see mandatory deconstruction rules attached to
demolition permits. Seldman also predicts that within the next few
years, several communities and states will adopt landfill bans on
several items. Following trends in the European community, Seldman
also expect bans on PVC in several products including medical
supplies. Activists will continue to push for policies that make
manufacturers more responsible for their products, including deposit
and take-back programs and minimum content standards.

The evolution of recycling goals into zero waste goals will continue
to take place in the corporate community, if business people take the
time to communicate with their vendors and suppliers, says Jim Bosch.
"When waste is created, it is often from a lack of understanding of
what is really needed," says Bosch. For example, Target used to
receive individual pieces of clothing from its vendors bagged in
plastic or packaged with tape, clips, pins, chipboard, or tissue paper
that had to be removed before employees could fold or hang the product
for display in the store. Removing these materials and correctly
folding and hanging the clothes created huge piles of waste in
Target's storerooms and required employees to rack up unproductive
hours on the clock.

With the "waste is inefficiency" motto in mind, Target's buyers and
its Asian vendors worked out a set of specifications for product
delivery. Now most of the clothing arrives "guest ready." Employees
can quickly move products from the back room directly to the store
floor because they are shipped the way Target displays them-without
the extraneous waste.

Advocates of zero waste find themselves in much the same place as the
pioneers of curbside recycling programs found themselves more than
twenty years ago. "We are at the stage where we are demonstrating that
zero waste is a reality that is actually happening today. We are at
the very beginning of a ten- to twenty-year process of building zero
waste into a real, adopted strategy nationwide," says Liss. Which
words best describe what they are trying to accomplish, which
approaches work best, and who is ultimately responsible are all open
questions. Advocates may not agree on exactly how zero waste will come
about, but they do agree on one thing. "Zero waste is absolutely an
environmental and economic necessity," says Seldman. "Now, when we get
there, that's a question of debate."

SIDEBAR: On the Zero Waste Horizon

Advocates will refine their definitions of zero waste so the concept
and its implementation are more easily understood by different sectors
(e.g. local governments, consumers, businesses).

Rural and small communities will lead the adoption of zero waste
strategies among government agencies.

Local governments will reevaluate how existing tools -- permits,
franchise fees, contracts, etc. -- can be used to encourage zero

Activists will continue to press manufacturers to take more
responsibility for their products and packaging, especially those
without widespread, economically viable recycling options.

Corporations will put more pressure on vendors and suppliers to
eliminate waste in their products and transport packaging.

SIDEBAR: The Future According to GRRN

The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) has identified eleven policies
and actions that it believes are required to achieve zero waste. You
can expect to find these policies on the agendas of zero waste
advocates nationwide over the next several years:

Manufacturer Responsibility. Manufacturers and producers must share
responsibility for recovering their products and ensuring that they
are recycled and not wasted.

Minimum-Content Standards. Manufacturers need to help "close the loop"
by using the materials collected in local recycling programs to
manufacture new products.

Consumer Deposit Programs. Deposit programs on materials such as
beverage containers, tires and batteries are effective strategies to
promote reuse and recycling.

Unit-Pricing for Trash. Residents and businesses need to be given the
incentive to reduce waste and recycle through variable garbage rates.

Full-Cost Accounting and Life-Cycle Analysis. The benefits of waste
prevention and recycling should include a full accounting of the costs
of resource depletion, remediation, and environmental degradation
caused by the continued reliance on virgin materials and wasting.

End Subsidies for the Extraction of Virgin Resources. Subsidies for
the resource extraction industries should be eliminated.

End Cheap Waste Disposal. Landfills and incinerators must be subject
to strong environmental standards and must account for the true long-
term cost of waste disposal.

Invest in Jobs Through Reuse and Recycling. Waste prevention and
recycling provides tremendous opportunity to create jobs and initiate
new business ventures.

Tax Shifting. Instead of giving incentives for wasting, tax credits
and economic incentives should promote waste reduction and the use of
recovered materials.

Campaign Finance Reform. Much of the resistance to changing resource
policies comes from industries that profit from wasting.

Take Consumer Action against Wasteful Corporations. The public must
put pressure directly on corporations that profit from waste.

Source: GRRN web site:

Kivi Leroux is an environmental writer and editor based in Washington
D.C. She can be reached at

Copyright 2001, Kivi Leroux