Some cities are leading the way in reducing the amount of trash they send to landfills. Here's how they're doing it.
Across the country, a handful of municipalities are radically reducing the amount of refuse they send to landfills, with the eventual goal of reaching "zero waste." Seattle recycles or composts more than half of what its residents toss out. San Francisco diverts 77% of its waste from landfills. Even sprawling Los Angeles recycles or composts about two-thirds of its garbage.
Less Than Zero?
The prime benefits in adopting zero waste are environmental; many cities that have enacted zero-waste plans say they have taken up the task in the name of sustainability.
And supporters argue that reducing waste doesn't necessarily mean increasing costs. For cities with limited landfill space—and the higher fees that come with it—most zero-waste activities cost less than normal garbage disposal, says Gary Liss, a zero-waste consultant who has helped about 20 cities form plans to reduce waste.
One caveat: "Zero waste" doesn't necessarily mean "no waste." Most cities use a definition from Zero Waste International Alliance, an environmental group, which says that diverting 90% of waste from landfills without the use of incinerators is "successful in achieving zero waste, or darn close."
Why don't cities shoot for 100% diversion? "We're not crazy," says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that promotes sustainable communities. The closer cities get to that goal, the harder it is to go further, largely because there are so many products out there that just can't be recycled—and people continue to buy them.