Most current approaches to waste management squander valuable materials and have harmful side effects for people and the planet. In most cities, residents have few incentives to produce less waste, resulting in a need for frequent collection, generating pollutants from fleets and increasing wear on public roads. Collection is most often performed by private contractors, leaving the city with a diminished ability to require strict environmental standards and high job quality for workers. Cities struggle to raise their recycling and composting diversion rates, resulting in tons upon tons of trash every day buried in landfills, generating toxic leachate and climate-warming methane, or burned in incinerators that release pollutants. The EPA estimates that over one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by consumption (and disposal) of food and goods.
Instead, cities must strive for zero waste, rethinking waste management to encourage reduction and reuse in each step. Starting on the production side, several cities have experimented with building a circular economy (products are designed to be salvaged into materials and reused) locally through specific economic development approaches, or by requiring municipal procurement to prioritize recycled products. On the consumer side, cities have also found success in raising diversion rates through outreach, especially with strategies adapted to be culturally specific for each neighborhood.
Along with this paradigm shift, cities should also bolster zero waste infrastructure. Offering curbside composting and expanding materials accepted for curbside recycling avoids the costs associated with landfilling Pairing more robust curbside pickup with pay-as-you-throw rates for trash can also discourage landfilling, for both residential and commercial consumers; some cities are even implementing mandatory recycling and composting. Additionally, some cities have created centers for hard-to-recycle-materials or CHaRMs. Lastly, revising collection to either become publicly operated or to require certain high standards (living wages, health benefits, etc) among private contractors will better ensure that municipal waste management supports jobs that pay well and prioritize worker safety.
Zero Waste is a Local Solution to Climate Change, Ecocycle Solutions, August 10th, 2016. Read more.
The Community Zero Waste Roadmap, Eric Lombardi and Kate Bailey, Ecocycle Solutions, January 1st, 2015. Read more.
More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S., Tellus Institute with Sound Resource Management. Read more.
San Francisco, CA often tops the list of zero waste cities, with mandatory recycling and composting, a strong emphasis on consumer-side waste reduction, and several producer responsibility policies (including a plastic bag ban and cigarette litter abatement fees).
Boulder, CO has been a leader on zero waste, from its ordinance establishing the City’s zero waste goal while requiring residents and businesses to provide more accessible recycling and composting, to its comprehensive plan that includes extensive coordination with outside partners, including the County and local non-profit providers. Boulder’s strategies include a center for hard to recycle materials, curbside composting along with recycling, construction and demolition reuse planning, and a high bar of job quality requirements for local haulers.
As part of its developing zero waste commitment, Asheville, NC has included a major focus on equity, working with the State government to fund recycling at public housing facilities.
In Austin, TX, the City waste management agency Austin Resource Recovery and the Department of Economic Development have partnered to support zero waste businesses and develop a local market for recycled materials, to which the City attributes an estimated $700 million in economic activity.
Residents of Berkeley, CA created the nation’s first curbside recycling program in the 1970s, and the City has continued this legacy through strong commitments to zero waste as part of its climate action plan.
Read more about building waste management in our report Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class.