Yet, we continue to throw things away-and how could we not? What else would we do with that annoying cellophane packaging? The to-go boxes? The packing peanuts? The after-dinner scraps that even the dog won't touch?
Part of the solution is as simple as a blue bin. Curbside recycling is still an incredibly effective way to save energy and divert tons of plastics, cans and glass away from landfills. Another answer is composting, which would address more than 60 percent of what ends up in residential dumpsters.
But in addition to getting the word out about these tried and true solutions, a new movement is taking a more holistic approach. Rather than focusing solely on what to do with existing waste, the "Zero Waste" movement looks at a product's entire life cycle-and redirects the conversation toward usable options for every step along the way. The ultimate goal is to eliminate waste as a concept entirely-a lofty aspiration indeed. But Zero Wasters say loftiness is part of the point-after all, creating a trash-free world is going to take nothing short of revolution.
Starting from Zero
The idea behind Zero Waste is simple: basically, nothing with a second use should be thrown away. And if something doesn't have a second use, it shouldn't exist. The Berkeley Ecology Center, a West Coast leader in the Zero Waste movement, puts it this way, "If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production."
While Zero Waste depends on careful attention to what we do or don't toss in our home trashcans, its ultimate task is to take a bigger view of how waste is handled on an industrial level. According to the Grassroots Recycling Network (GRRN), an international Zero Waste advocacy group, "The goal applies to the whole production and consumption cycle-raw material extraction, product design, production processes, how products are sold and delivered, how consumers choose products and more."
It's one thing to tell consumers to stop throwing banana peels in the trash bin, but quite a larger task to convince industry to adopt Zero Waste. Still, Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Zero Waste-oriented non-profit based in Boulder, Colo., says that industry is more amenable to the concept than you'd think. "Waste is money, and industry gets that better than anyone," he explains. In addition to offering various recycling services, Eco-Cycle consults businesses on how to reduce their overall waste. That means spending time peering into the dumpster, where they'll notice trashed items that could have been avoided through smarter purchasing decisions. "We'll agree to pick up those hard-to-recycle items like computers and plastic bags and shoes," he says, "and then what's left? Mostly junk plastics. That's when we talk with the people who do the purchasing to stop buying the things that end up in the dumpster."
You Make It, You Buy It
Of course, industry interest in Zero Waste isn't generally motivated by goodness of heart. One of the principal tenets of the Zero Waste strategy is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which, although new to the United States, is already well established in Europe-in part due to the pressing problem of limited landfill space. In an article for GreenBiz.com, Guy Crittenden explains, "True EPR connects producers with the downstream fate (and costs) of their products and packaging... [which] drives eco-efficiencies up the value chain, culminating in design for the environment."
The beginnings of an EPR policy in the US are visible in the growing number of landfill bans on toxic products, such as cathode ray tubes, large appliances, tires and electronics. In anticipation of future regulations on waste, some companies are voluntarily devising initiatives for reclaiming their waste, such as Sony's and Apple's takeback recycling programs. Of course, such programs also provide companies with that increasingly precious public relations commodity: green street cred.
At the very least, Zero Wasters are set on halting incentives to make waste. According to GRRN, "Markets today are heavily influenced by tax subsidies and incentives that favor extraction and wasteful industries." It's mainly for this reason-and not for lack of the appropriate technology-that waste has persisted, even in the wake of increasing environmental awareness. GRRN estimates that we have the existing technology to redirect 90 percent of what currently ends up in landfills.
Which begs the question: If we didn't send it to landfills, then where would it go? To recycling centers and municipal compost heaps, partly. But Zero Wasters say we shouldn't just be asking how to get rid of our waste. Just as fungi turn rotting logs into fertile growing material, we should be able to do better than piling up our waste and covering it with dirt. And while it's fun to conceive of wackier and wackier recycled products-corn husks turned into countertops! pencils made from recycled paper money! water bottles morphed into cozy fleece outerwear!-Brenda Platt, of the DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), stresses the importance of finding the highest use for recyclables, to allay the energy wasted in production. In the case of glass bottles, for example, that would mean refilling them (such as with milk bottles), followed closely by turning them into new bottles, transforming them into art glass, and then maybe making "glassphalt," a material that has been used as an alternative to conventional asphalt since the '70s. Such efforts can be facilitated by the existence of local "Resource Recovery Parks" where manufacturing and retail businesses share space, equipment and services, as well as reuse, recycling and composting facilities. In some cases, waste from one business becomes a resource for another business within such parks, creating a closed loop (see sidebar/Berkeley).
There's no doubt that Zero Waste is an idealistic-if not near impossible-goal. But whether or not it can be done in every instance, says Eric Lombardi, is really beside the point. "Being on the path to zero is the point," explains Lombardi. "Because once you have established zero as the goal-you being the government, you being a CEO-then you have a benchmark against which you can measure your future actions."
Perhaps one of those future actions will be recycling your trashcan.
Andi McDaniel is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Conscious Choice. Her work has appeared in Utne, Ode and Experience Life.