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Pay As You Throw: More Interest in Zero-Waste Efforts
Sarah Rich, 20 Mar 07
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We talk more and more often these days about the potential danger of half-steps toward sustainable practices. Now that the idea of being greener has infiltrated most corners of the business world, we're at a critical point where thinking only part of the way to a true solution means settling for something that may never get us all the way there.

What are some of the all-the-way solutions we're talking about? You could call them "The Zero's" -- zero-energy, zero-carbon, zero-emissions, zero-waste. The only way to surpass total elimination of the harmful byproducts of our lives is to create ways to suck up our own waste and reverse the damage. But acknowledging that there are enormous hurdles between halting our current momentum, and getting the pendulum to swing the other way, going for zero is probably the best combination of a solution that is both high-impact and quickly-attainable for the average individual, city or business.

Fortune Magazine recently ran an article about the smart business move that is zero-waste, and the "total makeover of the global economy" that will be required in order to obliterate the concept of throwing things away. In a garbageless economy, industry functions like a biological system in which one manufacturer's byproducts are another's fuel (or even the fuel for the same process) -- what Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart describe as "waste=food." And the advent of such a neobiological system may amount to "The Next Industrial Revolution."

The Fortune article points to San Francisco's model municipal waste disposal and recycling system, run by Norcal:

Norcal operates a $38 million facility that disaggregates all the recyclables in those blue bins. Conveyor belts, powerful magnets, and giant vacuums separate computer paper from newsprint, plastic jugs from water bottles, and steel and tin cans from aluminum. Materials are then sold to global commodity markets - and we do mean global.
Wastepaper, for example, is the U.S.'s No. 1 export by volume to China, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, which tracks trade. Ships that bring products from China to the U.S. return with wastepaper, which becomes packaging for goods made in China.
A second innovation is the city's handling of food scraps. Another Norcal facility grinds all that up with yard waste and cures it for three months. Banana peels, onion skins, fish heads, and other detritus are thus transformed into a nutrient-rich product dubbed Four Course Compost, which sells for $8 to $10 per cubic yard.

When I lived in San Francisco, my food scraps went into this giant compost heap, and the resulting substance went to growing some of the regions finest wine grapes and sweetest peaches. But the heart of the Fortune piece is not about how nice the compost is in San Francisco, but about how to get other cities, big businesses, and average residents, to take the time to become cogs in the zero-waste machinery. While systems like Norcal's work amazingly well to separate out components which don't get sorted by hand at home or in factories, there's a certain degree to which mass participation at the origin of disposal would make the process run more smoothly. So financial incentives come into play. San Francisco offers community members a discount on waste hauling if they accept a smaller bin for non-recyclable/non-food waste. It's a "pay as you throw" pricing scheme that leads easily to that critical extra second of thought before tossing a recyclable bottle into the trash bin.

Pricing incentives also apply up the chain at the producer level. Not all municipalities have structures in place that charge households according to the quantity of discarded waste, so it is also necessary to hold the bottle-maker accountable for the object's ultimate fate. "Take-back" laws and fees such as those charged to plastics manufacturers for the 5 billion bottles they set loose in the world each year encourage producers to take responsibility for their goods beyond their point of departure from factory to retail site. These incentive schemes get us thinking about the end-of-life scenario of product -- that point at which an object's fate lies literally in our own hands. But hopefully thinking harder about it also lead us to want fewer unsatisfactory options and less headache when it comes time to discard something. In other words, "pay as you throw" is a late-stage solution for what Jared Blumenfeld, the director of San Francisco's environment department, rightly pins as an early-stage design problem.

The deeper purpose here is to change the way things are made. "From our perspective, waste doesn't need to exist," says San Francisco's Blumenfeld. "It's a design flaw."

As we discussed yesterday, a good way to instigate change in the design phase is through impact assessments such as Wal-Mart plans to enforce starting next year, which can make producers think much smarter about how their goods are made, knowing that their decisions will be exposed to consumers with a greater degree of transparency, and that whatever they make will land back on their doorstep.

Wal-Mart also has a zero-waste goal, as does Herman Miller, Patagonia, Nike and others. The city of San Francisco has a zero-waste goal, as does Boulder, Colorado, most of British Columbia, and Buenos Aires (for a list of zero-waste cities around the world, check out Zero Waste International Alliance. It's a comprehensive, multi-stage approach that will raise awareness enough -- from designer to manufacturer to consumer to waste-hauler -- to make possible the "total makeover" our industrial process needs.

[Creative Commons Photo Credit]

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Sarah, thanks for noticing "The End of Garbage" in Fortune. Since the story was published, I've heard both from companies (Milliken Carpet) and activists about further progress towards "zero waste." This may not yet be an idea whose time has come--it as, as you know, a very radical notion--but I'm quite confident that it is coming. What's needed, among other things, is activism aimed at getting companies,consumers and local governments to both recycle more and buy more recycled stuff. The more robust the recycling business is, the less garbage will go to landfills.

Posted by: Marc Gunther on 20 Mar 07

Sarah, a good review of the many issues and opportunities as we face this issue head on in the years to come. I applaud Marc Gunther's many written works addressing this issue for the business community. It is the acceptance in the business world that I think has really gotten this latest wave of green going. We help businesses reduce their waste and it involves some education. There is no silver bullet for getting it done other than just rolling your sleeves up and doing it. Most of our clients find it wasn't has hard as they thought and the results have been good - they save money, often improve other areas of their business, and do some good for their community and the earth!

Posted by: Doug Farquhar on 20 Mar 07

Sarah, you bring up an important topic of discussion. The waste streams that we as consumers have control of are (a) food and composting (b) Reducing, reusing and being super vigilant about our choices to "not generate" waste in the first place if possible (c) recycle the "stereotypical" plastics, paper, electronics etc. The third point of recycling is what I struggle with - the good and bad of it.

When I state, in general, that consumer recycling (I don't mean industrial) is not healthy and that it is essentialy enabling "undesirable" behavior, that is when I get thrown out of parties and my friend's homes. You bring up the point indirectly with

"... laws and fees such as those charged to plastics manufacturers for the 5 billion bottles they set loose in the world each year encourage producers to take responsibility for their goods beyond their point of departure from factory to retail site"

It should be recognized that "Packaging" constitutes the bulk of our household trash (roughly 80%) and who does packaging benefit? Certainly not the consumer except indirectly. Spurious arguments about low cost products abound but they are parochial to the current business structures. Robust packaging enables our food to travel 1500 miles before reaching us, helps the Walmarts and mega distribution centers and remote manufacturing. As long as styrofoam and plastic remain cheap and artificially subsidized, there is no incentive for Proctor & Gambles to alter their distribution models.

Every time you take the robust detergent empty to the recycling bin, you make a statement to P&G that they can continue their behavior and you will spend 2 minutes of your life making the world a better place. The robust detergent containers should all be piled up in front of P&G factories and offices and bring the problem to a head.

I say plastic is artificially subsidized because the "rental" cost to the community of storing the plastic in a landfill for the next 500 years is not built into the cost of the styrofoam or plastic. And when the true cost is included, the market forces will take care of the problem because the paper and other biodegradables, which degrade in under a decade, will beat plastic in price and be the packaging materials of choice.

At this point my friends get violent and I have to stop my argument. I will leave it at this here too.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 20 Mar 07

Subbarao, the next time you discuss this issue at a party, I'll get your back. I live near a Wendy's restaurant, and the amount of its garbage (paper cups, burger wrappers, etc.) that accumulates in the gutters and hedgerows in my neighborhood is significant. What do we do? Because I live in a publicly-spirited neighborhood we all pick it up (whether in our yards or in the street) and put it in our garbage cans. So we're directly subsidizing Wendy's waste disposal. I'm now inspired by Subbarao's post to collect it and return it to its source.

Posted by: John Baxter on 20 Mar 07

I'm with you John. I live a few blocks from a major intersection with lots of fast food joints. Luckily, Oregon's $.05 bottle and can return keeps most of those off of the streets, but the burger wrappers and water bottles more than make up for it. Every time I go to the store I carry a grocery bag to collect trash in, and I haul it all home with me. Maybe I should start dropping it off at the fast food joints.
I did notice that after my initial litter pick-up mission, the rate of litter accumulation dropped significantly.

Posted by: Heidi on 21 Mar 07

There's a great book titled Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers that does a great job of unpacking this subsidization of packaging, especially plastics.

Posted by: ryan on 22 Mar 07



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