Zero Waste is a hot topic in environmental circles these days. There are numerous cities and communities in North America and around the world that are targeting zero waste. And there are many individuals who have taken their waste reduction and diversion efforts to the next level.
The Zero Waste International Alliance is pushing for the United Nations to endorse a resolution recognizing a universal definition of zero waste during the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which begins June 20 in Rio de Janeiro.
The resolution declares, among other things, that voluntary recycling goals haven’t cut waste enough. It says that the placement of materials in waste disposal facilities such as landfills and waste-to-energy plants causes damage to human health, wastes natural resources and/or transfers liabilities to future generations.
The alliance is requesting the UN adopt the definition of zero waste that its has developed, which basically calls for “no burn or bury.” It states, “Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
It is a lofty goal, but one that is likely impossible to obtain on a municipal scale in our current societies.
“It’s kind of a movement that’s afoot,” said Dave Mazza, regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council’s Pittsburgh office.
The Resources Council, a statewide group established in the 1930s, operates Zero Waste Pittsburgh, which teams with that city on major waste reduction initiatives. The group coordinates resource recovery at major events such at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Vintage Grad Prix.
Mazza said reaching complete zero waste will be elusive for major cities, even for Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco and other cities on the leading edge of efforts to cut their solid waste output.
“It may not be a realistic thing but it helps establish goals to shoot for,” Mazza said. “I don’t think they’re ever going to be truly zero waste but they may come as close as possible.”
San Francisco reached a 77 percent residential recycling and landfill diversion rate in 2010, but that is after 20 years of effort. Toronto diverted 47 percent of its waste from landfills, and Seattle recycled and diverted 53 percent in 2010. Single-stream recycling and the collection of compostable materials, which can account for 35 percent of what’s sent to landfills, are initiatives municipalities can take to drastically cut their solid waste.
While communities can see big savings initially by cutting disposal costs, they will reach a point of diminishing returns, Mazza said.
“We can’t expect a municipality, a city or even a business to go bankrupt trying to go zero waste. The question is how can we maximize what we can do in a reasonable fashion with the funding constraints we’re all facing,” he said.
Mazza said the City of Pittsburgh has not formally committed to zero waste but is taking some serious steps, like single-stream recycling. It has a diversion rate of around 20 percent. Nationally, recycling rates still hover around 30 percent.
Personally, less than half of my household waste gets thrown out as trash. A composter I bought last year handles most of the food scraps and leftovers that don’t get eaten, but what I can’t seem to avoid is all the questionable packaging. It’s the biggest source of trash for me. So right now, as you are my witness, I am vowing to buy more items in bulk, use my own containers where I can, and push to avoid nonrecyclable packaging.
While reaching zero waste is a dream of mine, exciting as that sounds, I know it’s highly unlikely.
But the point is to try to minimize waste as much as possible.
Mazza said we need to overcome the belief by many that recycling can have little impact on global problems.
“If every person did just one small thing recycling at home you could have a big impact on helping the environment,” he said.
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