Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, a person will not find peace – John Muir
Choosing to look at and face up to the amount of waste we produce requires fortitude – because it is all around us and so rampant. Ending this misuse is a process that involves creating new infrastructure, modernizing habits, and repurposing humanity – so that we are in harmony with our world. This evolution doesn’t require vast amounts of resources or time but it does require a commitment to establish new and better (and more beneficial) habits.
Residents and visitors of San Francisco are currently experiencing a reality unlike anywhere else in the world. The city has become a bastion of change and innovation, but more importantly, it has become a city dedicated to the environment. It is one of the first places on earth to make a commitment to Zero Waste.
As of 2009 they have prevented 72% of their trash from going into landfills or the ocean. The national average is approximately 34%. By the year 2010, with new composting regulations, they hope to achieve 75%. By the end of the following decade, 2020, they hope to achieve Zero Waste. San Francisco shows it not only possible to change the manner in which resources are consumed and treated, but how simple it is to make the change with communal dedication.
Zero waste is achievable. It is focus of this paper.
What Does Zero Waste Mean?
Zero Waste is a simple waste-management principle: nothing should be thrown into landfills. This is the natural order of the world. Our planet does not throw dead trees into space, land or water. It breaks them down, decomposes them, and reuses the raw materials for new life. We can exist in a state of harmony like this even in the midst of a coarse capitalist, industrial society.
To avoid tossing trash into landfills necessitates a whole lot more recycling. This is something we can all do today. Studies in DC (pdf) and San Francisco (pdf) show that residents in those cities are under recycling by about 20%. Improving our recycling creates a beautiful dynamic in the marketplace of trash. Cities recognize cost benefits in that selling recycling gives back money on average costing one half as much as sending trash to landfills. Business are provided with more raw materials at cheaper prices and a growing demand for more products of recycling. And, we the consumers, have an ever growing plethora of reused, environmentally friendly products to choose from.
Zero Waste also means the rise of compost. This process of breaking down organic waste into rich dirt is both beautiful and mythical. Humans have been composting for thousands of years, up to modern day. Even now in America it is a relatively unknown process but close to 10% of all our trash is composted (pdf). It represents the truest ideal we can hope to strive for in Zero Waste: a naturally occurring process that takes our most toxic waste in landfills (organic waste) and turns it into the most powerful source of soil we know of to grow another seasons crops.
These two components of our waste stream, recycling and composting, can represent all of our trash output and create a Zero Waste society.
Why Worry About Trash?
A reasonable question to ask is what are the impacts of trash sent to our landfills. To answer this we need to look into our trash stream, just how much trash are we producing? A look at the box on the right shows that we produce annually over 250 millions tons of trash in the United States. That is nearly 5 pounds per person each day, only 1/3 of which is recycled.
Of course, these numbers are on average across the country. Some states and cities have stricter standards and higher recycling rates, while others have yet to take waste seriously. In California, Zero Waste is an issue, with a government sponsored website, and a current recycling rate of 58%. Whereas Virginia has a state regulation of 15% or 25%, although they are recycling around 38% of their waste (pdf).
The 2/3 of our waste stream that is not recycled leaves us with a multitude of problems. Our landfills are the largest source of methane (pdf) on the United States, making them a leading contributor to global warming. The trash that doesn’t make it into the landfills is strewn across our lakes, streams, and now we are finding our oceans. Recently, Captain Charles Moore stumbled across an enormous garbage patch the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
There are also regular reports of hazardous waste leaking into our water or soil. Condemned landfills sites in cities, with even some cities attempting to redevelop the land (only to fail). Finally, sending trash to landfills wastes precious resources. Those resources are the raw materials that our industries use. Instead of reusing our existing supply we continually deplete our own raw materials and then import from other countries.
With increasing rates of recycling in our country we can avoid many of these detrimental impacts while gaining additional benefits. The recycling market presents a whole new dynamic to waste. At first glance it avoids the need for landfills and saves us all the cost of running and maintaining a landfill for our own needs. A deeper look reveals that recycled trash switches from a burden to a commodity. It can be bought and sold and often results in substantial savings for cities as they grow their recycling program. Imagine instead of paying to remove your trash, you are paid to recycle.
How Can I Become Zero Waste?
We can all become Zero Waste by making simple changes over a few months. Included below are the best tips that one can implement. Followed by a few examples of a Zero Waste lifestyle in action.
The best first step is to conduct an informal survey of the trash in your life. Look at how many trash cans you have in your home. How many you regularly use at work. Notice how much you throw out each day. Learn about your at home and at work recycling programs (and if offered, yard waste/compost program).
Next, make a dramatic change in your home. Throwing out waste is a lifestyle habit and so making a change requires a big first step (towards establishing that new habit). This can be something as extreme as carrying around all your trash for 2 weeks. Remove all the trash cans in your home except for the ones in the bathroom and kitchen. Reduce the size of your trash bin so that it is smaller than your recycling bin.
Any one of those steps can serve as a great reminder of your new trash habits. Choose one or develop your own as a solid reminder of your new Zero Waste lifestyle.
Finally, give yourself some time. Creating this new lifestyle is going to mean a lot of learning and spending changes. It won’t happen overnight but will happen over time.
Most folks find that it is easier to accomplish than they think. They realize that maximizing their recycling is crucial. Next they start cutting out their excess trash items, one at a time. Over the weeks and months a new habit is formed with the new lifestyle.
Since each lifestyle is different below are a many examples of folks making the change.
Coffee drinkers. My best friend and love Amy Senger carries around a reusable mug . It fits in her car cup holder and is large enough for her specialty Starbucks drinks. She receives a ten cent discount on her drinks and saves her having to throw away a cup, lid, and a straw (she reuses the straw too).
Handkerchief. This is my own favorite lifestyle change. I love carrying around a hanky as a fashion item, they do have great designs. Having one on me during my day allows me to avoid all the paper use of modern life. Now, I don’t use it as a tissue, rather a napkin, towel, and rag. When I’m eating I have a nice napkin for my lap. After washing my hands a perfect towel for drying my hands. And, when I get working on something around the home, a handyperson rag.
3 bin system. In many cities across America sorting happens right in the home. Households are provided by enlightened city management three bins for curbside pickup. One each for landfill, recycle, and yard waste/compost. This requires a slight adjustment as most don’t sort trash inside their home.
My parents recently received these three bins and had to make some adjustments. They ended up removing all the extra trash cans in their home. Leaving only the bathroom cans alone. The rest were in the kitchen where they had 3 cans, one for each item. This allowed them to simplify their trash habits, sort at the source, and then easily take it out to the curbside bins.
Now they probably gave me my Zero Waste genes, but because of this change (and a little prompting from me) they have reduced their landfill items to miniscule amounts. With less being landfilled every week.
Go Paperless. At work and at home you can cut out nearly all paper use. The remaining items can be recycled or reused. You can even start contacting all the companies sending you mail and ask them to send electronically or not send at all. At work you can alert your coworkers to your change and almost always find them sympathetic (or maybe even join you).
These are just some ways that you can start your journey towards Zero Waste. The journey is different for everyone but all find it fulfilling.
I moved composting into its own section because it is a separate element from above. Composting is different, its organic and its alive. To most its a novel process but it shouldn’t be since nearly 10% of all trash produced in America is composted. Its just new to the average industrialite.
Composting is a lot like decomposing, something we have all learned about. In its natural state it is a muddy pile of organic material that emits a faint sweet smell like a damp forest. As an essential part of any ecological system it creates fresh soil out of nearly any organic matter. And the soil is considered one of the richest sources of humus in the world, called ‘black gold’ by organic farmers.
To create a compost pile is very simple. Add organic matter to a compost bin, make sure its moist, and then mix it up daily. There is a bounty of products on the market for composting. The best include a wheel which makes mixing as simple as turning over the bin.
The more advanced composters know how to get the recipe just right. Some tips are to begin your pile with existing compost, called a starter. This will save you some time since it takes a little bit for the microorganisms to get going. Also, paying attention to what your adding to the pile helps. Too much paper can prevent your little friends from having the right diet to grow. See the box at right to learn what are ideal organics to add to your pile.
In general, the healthier your lifestyle (including the fresh food diet mentioned below) the better your compost pile. The less healthier lifestyles tend to include an over-abundance of packaging, papers, and plastics.
Lastly, try to find someone who has composted before. You might be surprised how many people compost and how many are already in your life (I call it our dirty little secret). Not only can they provide invaluable tips and introduce you into the Zero Waste community, they can provide that compost starter mentioned above.
If you’re interested in learning more about starting your own compost pile visit my post on the 5 Step Compost.
How Can I Make A Bigger Impact?
If you’ve made it this far then you are ready to make this world a better place. Here are some tips towards making your community, business, and life a better place.
Green Mission. Insert a line into your business about going green. This can be as simple to making a commitment to the environment. Or as focused as specific objectives, goals, and deadlines for your business to achieve. Having this on the table at all strategic meetings can make a huge difference. Some examples of companies with this kind of commitment: Walmart, Whole Food, Dow Chemicals, The Irvine Company.
Buy Recycled. It’s amazing how many products are available in stores that are made from recycled products. In many ways these items have become ubiquitous for us. This is great but it also needs to be cost effective. Buying more of these products helps the marketplace for recyclables grow, making it more affordable for all to buy and a bigger incentive for us all to recycle.
You have an amazing opportunity to join the growing ranks of Zero Waste citizens. A chance to make a lasting impact on our pollution problem and provide a better place for our children.