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Can Zero Waste Community Systems “scale up” to challenge the landfill and incinerator industries?

October 4, 2010
zero_waste

This is a guest blog submission by Eric Lombardi, Executive Director of Eco-Cycle, Inc.  Eco-Cycle is the largest Zero Waste social enterprise in the USA and has an international reputation as a pioneer and innovator in resource conservation.  Eric Lombardi is recognized as an authority on the social and technical aspects of creating community-based “Zero Waste” resource recovery programs.  Eric is participating in PSI’s 10th Series of Networking Conference Calls and will be the primary speaker for the first call of the series: Product Stewardship and the Drive Towards Zero Waste.

It’s a sad and little known fact that the U.S.A. recycling rate has been stalled out at about a 33% “discard recovery” rate (recycling and composting) since around 1997.  We did experience a rocket-ride recycling decade that started in 1987, the year of the Mobro Garbage Barge out of New York City.  For those ten years the recycling explosion was steered by passionate risk-takers who had a real desire to conserve natural resources by recovering them from our landfills and incinerators. But that all ended in 1997 when the municipal/industrial complex took over most mission-driven recycling efforts. Without the freedom that comes with passionate advocacy, recycling rates plateaued.  It was at that time when a handful of us decided to keep the fires burning and created the Zero Waste revolution, launching a new national organization named the GrassRoots Recycling Network.

The next ten years, 1997-2007, was an interesting time that proved Ghandi was right when he proclaimed about social change, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”  We were initially sidelined as radicals, then jokingly put-down as idealistic, then the “big trash” companies and industry publications raised their fists at us, but now I think we’re moving toward victory. How can we know?  I like to point to the Newsweek 2008 Earth Day issue where they named Zero Waste the #1 “Fix For The Planet,” and how in 2010 the largest trash hauler association in the world, the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) said, “It was time to basically tell the world that we do support zero waste … We see it as a tremendous business opportunity.”

Recently San Francisco announced that their landfill diversion rate was a whopping 77%!  And it’s important to note their claim that if they had full participation by the public, they would be closer to 90%.  So it’s clear that we know how to do this job of recovering resources, and that our challenge now is more in the economic and political realms. 

In S.F., one of the keys to their success is that their private sector hauler, Recology, is what the Italians would call “an inside company” and not vulnerable to the gnashing teeth of the single-bottom-line marketplace since they are written into the City Charter and can’t be denied their contract.  To most free-market Americans, this sort of cozy relationship might sound like a bad thing.  But in fact this sort of “social business” is exactly the formula needed to transform our waste management system into a resource management system. Why? Because resource conservation is a social issue first and a market issue second and will remain that way until the economists of the world can figure out how to correctly price out the bloody resource wars in Africa for minerals, Indonesia for timber and worldwide for oil… not to mention the spoiling of our water, soils and atmosphere.  Bringing an end to our wasting society is a triple-bottom-line activity, and that’s political.

So if it’s time to stop arguing and get on with it, how do we go forward?  That question has been arising everywhere I go, and so Eco-Cycle has created a simple plan to get launched. We call it “The 10-Year Bridge Strategy for Building a Zero Waste Community.”  It is a simplified roadmap written for policymakers such as elected officials and City Managers so that they can envision the community-scale changes needed to move away from landfills and incinerators.  I will be presenting The Bridge Strategy on the PSI Networking call on October 13th, and I am looking forward to a good discussion about where Product Stewardship fits into The Bridge.  Please join me and some other wonderful Zero Waste thoughtleaders  for this important call.

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