GLOBE-Net, June 26, 2012 - Twenty years ago
Maurice Strong, the secretary-general of the United Nations' first
Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, declared that if our planet was to
remain a hospitable and sustainable home for humans, the battle
would be won or lost in major urban areas.
Strong's message is even more important today, with more people
now living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in
Among the many consequences of this human migration is the issue
of waste, an issue that affects city dwellers not only from
environmental and social points of view, but also in terms of
economic impacts - from the rising financial costs of waste
management through to the impact of waste on human
Many cities around the world are coming
up with innovative ways to tackle waste and are trying to reduce
the amount of waste generated by households and
San Francisco has been at the forefront of efforts to reduce
waste through recycling, composting and other innovative programs
for several years. In itself, that is an achievement to brag about,
but San Francisco has set its sights on a loftier goal - to become
a zero waste city by 2020.
San Francisco is not alone. Nearby Oakland, California launched
a similar initiative in 2006 with a goal to reduce the annual
amount of waste directed toward landfills from 400,000 tons to
40,000 annually by 2020.
The City of Los Angeles is developing a 20-year Solid Waste
Integrated Resources Plan (known affectionately as "SWIRP"),
for its solid waste and recycling programs to lead Los Angeles
closer towards being a "zero waste" city by 2030.
Seattle, which diverts about 54% of its waste from the dump and
hopes to reach 70% by 2022, mandates recycling for businesses and
residents, and requires food composting for single-family
Many other cities around the world are striving to develop
better recycling systems and to increase the rates of diversion of
solid wastes from landfills.
In the Middle East, the ultra-futuristic Masdar City development
being constructed in the desert near Abu Dhabi not only plans to be
carbon neutral, it also plans to reduce wastes to near zero by
processing biological waste to create a nutrient-rich soil and
reusing industrial wastes such as plastics.
In Sydney, Australia the zero-waste initiative is part of a
larger, more integrated plan to be "green, global, connected" by
2030. City council plans for instance to build a network of 'Green
Transformers' that would cut the carbon content of electricity,
provide low greenhouse hot water, heating, and cooling for both new
and existing buildings.
Green Transformers would also be configured to use the waste
heat to transform sewage into recycled water. Within the next two
decades the vision is that half of the City's waste be digested and
returned as electricity into the local distribution
Becoming a zero waste city is a huge undertaking that involves
more than physical plants for the processing of solid or biological
wastes, or recycling recoverable material.
It also involves changing the mindsets of the people living in
these cities and gaining a clear understanding of where waste
materials are being generated, what types of materials are
involved, and how best they can be dealt with.
The City of Vancouver recognizes this and is working to nurture
a zero waste culture through a combination of public information
programs, inspirational messaging, and the use of incentives, all
backed up by tough enforcement.
Educational materials and outreach activities are designed to be
transformative and raise the collective consciousness of citizens
and City staff.
Community-based social marketing will be used as the primary
means of addressing barriers and promoting behaviour change. Social
media will be used to broadcast messages and a particular emphasis
will be placed on empowering youth to build healthy peer
The City plans to establish a Neighbourhood Zero Waste
Network of individuals, organizations and businesses to
promote information exchanges between the city and the community on
zero waste issues and to build consumer support for those
businesses and enterprises that provide reuse and recycling
Smart Waste Management is the key
The City of San Francisco already enjoys a 78% landfill
diversion rate, one of the highest in North America. Working
closely with Recology, San Francisco's resource recovery company,
the city plans to continue reducing landfill disposal by further
improving its recycling programs.
Recology makes an extensive use of information technology to
pinpoint the location, types and amount of waste to be collected
for sorting, recycling or composting.
This 'smarter' approach has reduced garbage sent to area
landfills by 49.7%, from 730,000 tons in 2000 to 367,300 tons in
2011; 1.2 million tons of paper has been recycled (the equivalent
of 20 million trees); 174,000 tons of glass has been recycled,
saving enough energy to power the city's cable car system for
nearly three years; and the 135,000 tons of metal recycled has
generated enough income to offset the purchase of 19 million
gallons of oil.
Why is Zero Waste important?
The concept of Zero Waste has implications that go far beyond
individual cities or companies. On a global scale the concept has
staggering importance in terms of economic and social impacts. As
Marc Gunther has noted, zero waste is such a radical idea
because it leads to a new way of thinking.
"Getting to a wasteless world,' he notes, "will require nothing
less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers
such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and
architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial
Business is Responding
If cities are moving more aggressively towards zero waste,
companies that depend on picking up and disposing of people's
garbage will need to reinvent themselves to ensure survival.
Waste Management Inc., North America's largest waste haulage
company, is focusing less attention on landfill management and more
on recycling facilities that allow for recovering greater value
from municipal waste streams. It is also deploying consultants to
help cities and businesses to use less and to throw away less,
thereby saving money and is exploring new technologies to generate
energy from both its solid and organic waste streams.
Companies such as General Motors, Walmart, Procter & Gamble,
and DuPont are also looking at zero waste principles for their
GLOBE 2012 speaker Linda Fisher, who has been
DuPont's chief sustainability officer since 2004, notes that
DuPont's Drive to Zero initiative grew from a review of the risks
and opportunities arising from environmental issues.
Those reviews confirmed that better waste management was an
important business opportunity for DuPont, and the company has
responded accordingly. (See GLOBE-net article
An Interview with Linda Fisher Chief Sustainability Officer,
Summing up, are zero waste cities possible? The answer is clear:
not only they are possible but in time they will become
commonplace. The revenue streams associated with reducing the
volumes of waste generated by cities and increasing the amount of
waste that are reused or recycled are too great to be
This is a fact that city administrators have come to realize and
a reality that companies in the waste management sector must now
factor into their long terms investment plans.