E Magazine  [Printer-friendly version]
April 1, 2001


No Longer Content to Just Recycle Waste, Environmentalists Want Us to
Reduce it to Nothing

[Rachel's introduction: Here's another good overview of the "zero
waste" approach to municipal trash, written in 2001 by Jim Motavalli,
the prolific editor of E-Magazine.]

By Jim Motavalli

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a program that will take back for recycling any and all outdated Sony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.

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

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."

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

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.

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.

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, Sony'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

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

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.

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

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

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 beverage 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.

Copyright E Magazine 2001