Most approaches to waste management squander valuable materials and have harmful side effects for people and planet. Residents have few incentives to produce less waste, resulting in a need for frequent collection, generating pollutants from fleets and increasing wear on public roads. Collection is most often performed by private contractors, leaving the city with a diminished ability to require strict environmental standards and high job quality for workers. Cities struggle to raise recycling and composting diversion rates, resulting in tons of trash every day buried in landfills, generating toxic leachate and climate-warming methane, or burned in incinerators that release pollutants. The EPA estimates that over one-third of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by consumption (and disposal) of food and goods.
Cities must strive for zero waste and encourage reduction and reuse in each step. Starting on the production side, several cities have experimented with building a circular economy (products are designed to be salvaged into materials and reused) or by requiring municipal procurement to prioritize recycled products. On the consumer side, some cities have raised diversion rates through outreach, especially when adapted to be culturally specific for each neighborhood.
Cities should also bolster zero waste infrastructure. Offering curbside composting and expanding materials accepted for curbside recycling avoids the costs associated with landfilling. Pairing more robust curbside pickup with pay-as-you-throw rates for trash can also discourage landfilling, for both residential and commercial consumers. Additionally, some cities have created centers for hard-to-recycle-materials (CHaRMs). Lastly, revising collection to either become publicly operated or to require certain standards (living wages, health benefits, etc) among private contractors will better ensure that municipal waste management supports jobs that pay well and prioritize worker safety.
What Cities Can Do
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San Francisco, CA often tops the list of zero waste cities, with mandatory recycling and composting, a strong emphasis on consumer-side waste reduction, and several producer responsibility policies (including a plastic bag ban and cigarette litter abatement fees).
In Austin, TX, the City waste management agency Austin Resource Recovery and the Department of Economic Development have partnered to support zero waste businesses and develop a local market for recycled materials, to which the City attributes an estimated $700 million in economic activity.
Recycling & Composting
Boulder, CO has been a leader on zero waste, from its ordinance establishing the City’s zero waste goal while requiring residents and businesses to provide more accessible recycling and composting, to its comprehensive plan that includes extensive coordination with outside partners, including the County and local non-profit providers. Boulder’s strategies include a center for hard to recycle materials, curbside composting along with recycling, construction and demolition reuse planning, and a high bar of job quality requirements for local haulers.
As part of its developing zero waste commitment, Asheville, NC has included a major focus on equity, working with the State government to fund recycling at public housing facilities.
Residents of Berkeley, CA created the nation’s first curbside recycling program in the 1970s, and the City has continued this legacy through strong commitments to zero waste as part of its climate action plan.