Chapter 2 – Planning for Zero Waste

This chapter gives the rationale for aiming towards Zero Waste and illustrates the relationship between the City’s two long-term goals of waste reduction and increased diversion of recyclable and compostable materials.

Zero Waste has been defined as “a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century.” It includes recycling, but goes beyond recycling by taking a whole-system approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society.

Zero Waste maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.” Footnote 2

The ever-increasing quantity of waste is a global problem, resulting from a growing population and the spread of consumer values and consumption. Society generally supports exploitation rather than conservation of raw materials and non-renewable natural resources.

Increased consumption and insufficient conservation result in air and water pollution, environmental exposure to toxic materials, and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Because manufacturers are not accountable for the costs of managing products at the end of their life, they have no incentive to make end-of-life management cheaper or more environmentally sustainable.

The movement towards Zero Waste is a response to the environmental, economic and operational issues created by increasing waste:

•    Zero Waste strategies consider the whole life cycle of a product and ways to reduce waste in “upstream” production and distribution processes, as well as in “downstream” consumer choices and waste management practices.

•    Zero Waste strategies support operational efficiency by reducing the overall amount of waste to be handled, and by facilitating shared public and private responsibility for end-of-life waste management.

2.1 Zero Waste: the Ultimate Goal

The contemporary Zero Waste paradigm imagines a future when “waste” is considered an inefficient use of resources. As a result, less waste will be generated and discarded, and the remaining discarded material will be reused, recycled or composted.

Figure 2-1 illustrates the parallel goals of Olympia’s long-term Zero Waste strategy.

•    Reducing the total quantity of discarded material. The total “pile” of waste generated — everything “thrown away” or discarded — gradually shrinks over time.

•    Recycling and composting the remaining discarded material. Of the shrinking pile of waste, the amount of material disposed in a landfill also shrinks as more and more material is recycled or composted.

View Figure 2-1 Moving Toward Zero Waste

2.2 Waste Management — from Dump to Zero Waste.

For most of human history, little was wasted; anything discarded was organic and decomposed readily. In recent centuries, usable items were often gleaned from the dumps by “rag and bone men” with their carts. Then local governments began managing solid waste initially for public health purposes — literally to get garbage out of the street. Waste was collected and hauled to empty spaces where it was dumped.

Early 1900s to 1980

View Figure 2-2 Linear Production of Disposal Model

This basic linear paradigm continued into the 1960s, and many of today’s facilities, such as transfer stations, were designed to support a system of collection and disposal.

However, products and materials changed, and especially after World War II, toxic chemicals and plastic products became commonplace. Unlined, uncontrolled dumps leaked toxic materials into the environment, spawning federal regulations in the early 1970s to mandate proper management of landfills and cleanup of old ones.

People also became increasingly aware that the large quantity of waste going to landfills was not only a waste of materials, but also a waste of money. They realized that non-renewable raw materials were being mined at a great rate, and thrown into landfills or incinerators. The concept of recycling took on a new importance.

1980s to Present

During the 1970s, small-scale private recyclers in Washington began providing drop sites and the occasional collection program. Then in 198, the Washington State Legislature passed the Waste Not Washington Act requiring local governments to prepare solid waste plans, and to incorporate waste reduction and recycling as the highest waste management priorities.

View Figure 2-3 Traditional Recycling Model

The paradigm shifted to a more circular system where at least some discarded materials were separated for composting and recycling. The three “R’s” of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle were considered the three-legged stool of waste management.

21st Century

Today’s paradigm builds on the “3Rs” and the circular model. Zero Waste envisions a completely closed-loop, “cradle-to-cradle” system where no material is “wasted.”

The 3Rs paradigm, like the linear model, focused on managing wastes at the end of a product’s lifecycle — or “downstream.” Achieving Zero Waste depends on consumer behavior and choice, and on systems for handling discarded products and materials, but more importantly on the way products are manufactured and marketed in the first place — “upstream.” Zero Waste can only work if products are made more recyclable, if toxic and non-recyclable components are eliminated, and if producers and manufacturers work with public agencies to provide systems for people to reuse and recycle efficiently.

View Figure 2-4 Closed-loop Recycling System.

See Chapter 4, Section 4.1 for a review of how this process developed historically in Thurston County.

2.3 Benefits of Moving toward Zero Waste

Reducing overall waste generation and diverting the remaining discards from disposal to recycling or composting has environmental, public health and economic benefits. Conventional production processes extract raw materials and use them to manufacture products. Recycling and reuse replaces the raw material extraction stage by providing a recycled feedstock for manufacturing. The process is made easier with an upstream approach, which focuses on products and packaging being designed with recycling and reuse in mind. The environmental and economic benefits of waste prevention are similar to the benefits of recycling, but even greater.

Environmental Benefits

•    Reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Every ton of mixed recyclables that is recycled instead of going to the landfill means roughly three fewer tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Footnote 3

•    Reduced energy and water consumption. Energy and water are resources that are used at every step of the manufacturing process. Production with recycled materials uses significantly less energy and water than using virgin material feedstock.

•    Reduced air and water pollution. Emissions to the environment that have detrimental impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and human health are less when recycled materials are used in the production process. Footnote 4

•    Reduced resource depletion. Recycling creates a loop, which can be repeated, whereas the traditional path is a dead end because it depends on continually obtaining raw materials by exploiting natural resources — many of which are non-renewable. Non-renewable resources, such as iron ore, oil and bauxite (raw material for aluminum) become harder to extract as they are used up, resulting in greater impacts of extraction and higher costs. Eventually, if this practice continues, non-renewable resources will be completely depleted.

Economic Benefits

•    Job creation. Recycling has been shown to add value to the U.S. economy by creating jobs. According to one study, the refuse industry employed approximately 666,000 workers in 2008; 500,000, or 75 percent, were in jobs related to recycling. By 2030, jobs related to recycling could exceed well over 1.5 million. Footnote 5

•    Other economic benefits. Zero Waste strategies applied widely could result in significant economic benefits both locally and globally. These include the economic value of reducing the kinds of environmental impacts described above, creating jobs and saving waste management costs for individuals and businesses.

In the short term, Olympia’s residents and businesses can save on their garbage bills by implementing Zero Waste practices. Landfill disposal costs at the Waste and Recovery Center (WARC) are approximately $119 per ton (Fall 2014) and are expected to increase. For each additional ton of material recycled or composted, the City saves between $75 and $100 of disposal costs. Every ton of waste not generated in the first place saves the City $119 in disposal costs. These savings, minus any increased labor and equipment costs, help control costs to ratepayers.