Can a Whole City Go Zero Waste?

zero waste city photo

Image credit: net_efect, used under Creative Commons license.

We've already seen how pay-as-you-throw trash metering can cut landfill waste in half, and we've witnessed whole cities make composting mandatory. So there's little doubt that much, much more can be done by most cities to cut waste, and keep precious resources out of landfill. That's why an announcement from my hometown that it will completely eliminate waste to landfill within three years is particularly exciting. But is it enough?City Commits to Zero Waste to Landfill
Bristol, in the South West of England, is already recycling 38% of its trash (well above the UK average of 31%), but under a new scheme the council has just announced that it will be sending zero waste to landfill by the Spring of 2013.

No Landfill Does Not Mean No Impact
This commitment is part of a major investment in recycling infrastructure that will see a new state-of-the-art recycling facility built to manage and sort the city's waste. But we should be clear—this doesn't mean that it is all going to be recycled. In a move that will likely raise concerns among many environmentalists worried about air pollution, whatever waste can not be recycled will be shredded, bailed and transported abroad for incineration in waste-to-energy plants.

What Role Waste Reduction?
While I'm excited to hear that the city's plan includes ambitious goals for eliminating landfill, and I'm pragmatic enough to accept that waste-to-energy may be a least-bad temporary solution until we can design for truly cradle-to-cradle manufacture, I'm saddened to see that this announcement—like so many others before it—focuses on waste treatment and management, whereas tackling waste supply—i.e. throwing away less stuff—should always come first.

What if cities invested as much in freecycle-type resource swapping as they did on recycling plants? What if they truly embraced collaborative consumption? The possibilities are endless. Zero waste to landfill is a great step forward, but it is a step, not an arrival.

More on Waste Reduction
Pay-As-You-Throw Trash Metering Cuts Landfill Waste in Half - It Really Works!
San Francisco's Mandatory Composting Law a Success

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