Getting to Zero: US Cities Innovating Their Way to Zero Waste

By Hannah Greinetz

Hannah Greinetz is the Managing Editor of the Meeting of the Minds Blog. She holds a BA in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz and an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.

The United States is the world’s top producer of waste, sending approximately 240 million tons of garbage to landfills annually. That’s about one quarter of the world’s waste, produced by about 5% of the world’s population.  We’re followed by Russia, at about 200 million tons annually, and then by Japan at about 50 million tons.  Germany and Britain both produce about one third of the trash per capita of the average US citizen; both countries deal with about 50 million tons of waste per year.

For many US cities, this high volume production is not only an embarrassment to the city’s reputation, it’s also economically sensible and ecologically necessary to reduce or even eliminate waste created. Quite a few US cities have set aggressive reduction targets for business and residential waste within the next one to eight years – San Francisco and Los Angeles are two leaders in their efforts to get to zero waste, but they’re going about getting there in rather different ways. But many cities are still trailing by 50 to 60 percentage points on the amount of waste diverted from landfills – where San Francisco diverts 77% of waste from being deposited in landfills, New York City diverts only 24%.

Our millions of tons waste problem is highlighted by the fact that eligible sites for landfills in the US is down by 80% – we’re running out of places to stash our trash. One way we deal with this is by shipping 40 foot containers full of scrap metal, scrap plastic and paper, and even containers full of trash to countries who make use of the materials. The US exports millions of tons of scrap metal to Asian countries each year, and then imports it back in as car parts, machinery, and other aluminum products. We export scrap plastic and paper and receive it back for sale as packaged goods. Some countries even take our trash and turn it into energy.

Oslo, Norway is THE leader in the urban effort to get to zero waste – Oslo has a waste shortage, and has turned to importing trash from other countries to fill its need for energy-producing rubbish. Here’s a look at how US cities are planning to get to zero waste.

What does Zero Waste mean?

Zero Waste doesn’t necessarily mean that cities are producing zero waste – instead the term refers to sending zero waste to landfills. Many cities are considering Zero Waste to actually be a 90% diversion rate from landfills to recycling and composting facilities, with or without the use of incinerators to reach that goal. Since municipalities can’t control what kinds of products and packaging are coming into the boundaries of their city, and not all products can be recycled or composted, the 90% rate represents a compromise of values.

San Francisco: leading the charge

San Francisco has the highest rate of diversion in the US at 77%. The City of San Francisco has had success with backing their Zero Waste initiative with policies and mandates that seek to change citizen and business behavior to reduce waste creation. For example, a city ordinance has been passed that requires all residents to separate their waste into recyclables, compostables, and landfill-bound trash. San Francisco defines its goal of zero waste as a 90% diversion rate from landfills without sending trash to an incinerator, and recognizes that to reach 100%, state and national legislation must be passed to outlaw certain types of packaging and production that inevitably end up in the landfill. Either way, the city’s goal is 100% diversion by 2020.

San Francisco leads the country in residential composting, and in 2010 became the first city in the US to ban plastic bags from being distributed. SF also actively supports state legislation that would hold producers responsible for product waste, and legislation that would reduce marine plastic pollution.

Los Angeles: taking a different approach

LA is shooting for 90% diversion, but, unlike San Francisco, it doesn’t rely on mandates and regulations to put teeth behind the initiative. Instead, LA incentivizes residents with Starbucks gift-cards and seeks to make recycling as easy and convenient as possible for people. Their approach seems to be working well for them; LA’s current diversion rate is approaching 70%.

Minneapolis: eyeing the target

Minneapolis has a long way to go to catch up to cities like San Francisco, LA, San Diego, and Seattle; all have diversion rates of over 60%, while the Twin Cities have a diversion rate of 37%. Not to be deterred, Minneapolis is setting aggressive goals and learning from the paths to success that west coast cities have taken. They plan to set a ban on plastic and plastic foam takeout containers, and to address packaging in general, on the front end of their zero waste initiative. They also saw a jump in recycling rates last year when they made a change in waste collection services and began allowing residents to dump all recyclables into one bin.

Minneapolis is looking to San Francisco as a role model, and wants to make it as easy as possible for people to participate in getting the city to its zero waste goal. They’re planning to hit corporations with fees to cover the cost of recycling, and push them to stop using unrecyclable plastic packaging. To motivate citizens, they’re focusing on public education and encouragement campaigns – no Starbucks gift cards for Twin Cities residents, but a healthy does of competition and optimism around zero waste seems to be spreading across the country. Soon, hopefully, we’ll be sending Sweden elsewhere for their rubbish needs.

Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. Janine Finnell

    Hi Hannah:

    I really enjoyed your article pertaining to Zero Waste. I wanted to reach out to you to say hello as a like-minded individual in the Washington DC area. Please also feel free to connect on LinkedIn. I direct the Leaders in Energy group on LinkedIn where we discuss energy, environmental, and sustainability topics. We have 1200+ members from around the world. Would love to have you n the group.

    We will be conducting a workshop on Sustainable Manufacturing and the Circular Economy in Alexandria, VA on March 19th. If you know anyone in our region who you think may be interested in learning more about this, please feel free to let me know. Further information is available on our website under Events in March.

    Best,
    Janine

    Reply

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