Amidst overflowing landfills and trash containers, a concept known as “zero waste” is taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations, according to a recent New York Times article.
“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,” said Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”
The concept of zero waste is simple: Produce less waste by staying away from anything that doesn’t biodegrade and by recycling or composting everything possible.
But, the zero-waste phenomenon is about more than just NIMBY-esque feelings over landfills. Organic waste stuck in oxygen-depleted landfills releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so it’s important that methane production is reduced in every way possible – no small feat for a country where every U.S. citizen produces about 4.6 pounds of trash per day, according to the EPA.
But several places are making the impossible seem possible.
One is Ecco, an Atlanta-based restaurant where seasonally inspired food scraps are dumped into five-gallon pails and composted.
Another is Yellowstone National Park, where campers and nature enthusiasts can use biodegradable cups and utensils instead of their plastic counterparts.
But one of the most impressive examples of the possibilities of a zero waste society is found in Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts.
There, residents concerned about tax increases for new landfills and to ship waste to the mainland decided more than a decade ago to move to a no-holds-barred trash policy. As a result, recycling is mandated not only for the typical items like aluminum, glass and paper, but also tires, batteries and household appliances, according to the Times.
Residents can also drop off books, clothing and other reusable items at the local recycling and disposal complex for others to take home.
The transition to regularly sorting trash and delivering it to the complex has gone over well for most residents, said Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971.
Thanks to the residents’ efforts, only about 8 percent of waste goes to the landfill, compared to 66 percent for Massachusetts’ residents.
Other areas, like San Francisco, are also stepping up their composting efforts. As MNN has reported, the famously green city recently became the first city in the nation to require people to properly dispose of their organic garbage waste.
Despite these recent successes, transitioning to a zero-waste society won't be entirely easy, mostly because it requires some thought on the part of its citizens. For example, those who improperly place biodegradable plastics in the wrong recycling containers can gum up operations, which can be costly and time-consuming.
Though clearer labeling for biodegradable items would help this problem, the real challenge is to get people to actually think about where their waste is going.
“Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,” said Johnston of the EPA.