New York City not too long ago had a landfill you could see from space. Now it has a plan to get to "zero waste" in the next 15 years—a task that might seem impossible to anyone who has wandered the city’s litter-strewn streets on a weekend and tried to find a public trash can that’s not overflowing.
So how does the nation’s largest city go about getting rid of its garbage? And what is zero waste anyway? Since the term became a buzzword two decades ago, it’s been adopted as a goal by many cities around the world. In practice, however, "zero" is a goal that's out of reach for even the most well-meaning cities. They can go far—even to 90% reduction of landfill waste—but the last bit requires a higher-level of change than cities can usually achieve, such as getting more industries to design their products for zero waste in the first place.
But there are a few cities around the world that have become leaders in the zero-waste movement. While New York City has gotten a start—with a pilot composting program and a long-needed ban on styrofoam containers—it still has a long way to go.
San Francisco became the largest U.S. city to commit to zero waste in 2002, promising to divert 100% of its waste from landfills by 2020. Likely, it will be the first to come close to this goal. Doing this, according to the Guardian, has taken "great political determination," including passing unpopular legislation (such as banning plastic bags and making composting mandatory) and working with restaurants, hotels, landlords, and the construction industry to get them to participate. It’s helped that the city had a good partner in the employee-owned, local waste management company Recology, which, for example, offers 20% discounts to residents who skip waste collection days twice a month.
Today, at more than 80% landfill diversion, San Francisco is well on its way to zero waste, but the last bit may be the hardest. The city says it can get to 90% landfill diversion by continuing its current activities. The last 10%, however, will require state or national laws that require or incentivize more product manufacturers to get on board with the program.
Sweden (and every city in it) has a slightly different approach to zero waste. It fuels itself off of trash, burning about 2 million tons of trash a year in waste-to-energy plants, replacing a not-insignificant amount of the nation’s fossil fuel use, and drastically reducing landfill waste. This, however, has a caused a problem: Sweden has also become so efficient at recycling and reducing waste that it doesn’t have enough trash to burn to power its facilities. It imports about 800,000 tons of trash annually from neighboring countries to feed its incineration plants.
As the Huffington Post notes, Sweden’s success was rooted in a cultural shift around attitudes towards trash that began in the 1970s and took decades to bear fruit.
This city of 3 million struggles under its heaping amounts of trash. In 2005, it set a zero-waste policy goal on an ambitious 2020 timeline that banned landfilling of recyclable and compostable waste. But with the amount of trash generated by the city growing and the city’s trash services mostly run by private companies that have a profit motive to keep landfilling, this goal has been hard to meet.
The heroes of Buenos Aires’ recycling program are the cartoneros, or waste pickers, who sort through trash every night on the streets, pulling out recyclables and leaving the rest for waste haulers. In the last decade, these impoverished workers have organized into cooperatives that the city is only now starting to embrace. According to City Scope, about 5,000 are now working in city-built warehouses where they can sort in cleaner and safer working conditions and negotiate better prices with recycling companies. The city, however has a far ways to go before meeting its goals to capture 100% of its recyclable waste.
Capannori is a small town that is leading Europe towards its continent-wide zero-waste goal. It started in 1997 when local activists defeated a proposal for an incineration plant and developed an alternative instead: a waste tax that would reward residents for reducing non-recyclable waste. According to IPS News, the town gave residents garbage bags with codes on them to track each household’s waste production. This was only the beginning of a long education effort that saw a nearly 40% reduction in the amount of waste generated per person between 2004 and 2012. Because of recyclables it sells, its zero-waste program is financially self-sufficient and even makes money for the city.
Like San Francisco, the city is nearing its zero-waste goal but will have trouble with the remaining small bit that keeps getting sent to landfills. But it it won’t take no for an answer: The city is working to convince companies to change. The coffee company Lavazza, for example, responded to the town’s concerns with a pilot that changes the coffee capsules in espresso machines to recyclable materials.
Zero waste is a full-fledged movement today, one that is spreading from cities to states to countries as well as the corporate world. The cities above show just a fraction of the work that is happening, but represent a spectrum of approaches to the problem of waste. The biggest barrier is the shift that needs to happen in the mindsets of everyone who produces waste, which, of course, is all of us.