Getting to Zero: US Cities Innovating Their Way to Zero Waste
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
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.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?