How Far Are We from a Zero-Waste World?

Let’s talk about trash.
September 1, 2018
6 mins read

Most people associate zero-waste living with the occasional nonconformist who makes the news for producing only a single jar of trash over a five-year period. Meanwhile, the majority of the populace continues to actively purchase and dispose of material goods at breakneck speed.

The lack of consideration for garbage in mainstream culture suggests that many people assume that items disappear after they are thrown into a trashcan. Disposed-of materials are no longer needed, possessed or accounted for — in effect, garbage is worthless and virtually ceases to matter.

The environment might disagree.

The average American generates an estimated 4.5 pounds of trash every day; the world collectively produces over 2 billion tons of solid waste each year. This foreboding quantity of garbage is dispatched to landfills (where the unnatural compounds displace soil and leach toxic substances deep into the earth), into incinerators (where the waste is scorched into ash, heat and pollution) and into the oceans, by way of prolonged migration, where it disrupts marine life and forms islands the size of small countries.

World War Trash

Considering that garbage is literally invading and destroying the planet, it might seem surprising that the movement for zero-waste living faces fierce opposition. Human lives are actually at stake, so shouldn’t a few thorough reports and a little media coverage concerning the growing trashiness of the planet be enough to convince everyone to stop buying plastic water bottles or invest in reusable shopping bags?

One of the most injurious misconceptions regarding trash (and environmentalism in general) is that the best way to spark an environmental revolution is to educate the public. Research proves time and time again that telling people what they should believe and how they ought to behave is hilariously ineffective when it comes to provoking tangible change.

The real solution is to change behavior, not attitudes. According to notable environmental authors like Thomas Heberlein (“Navigating Environmental Attitudes”) and Dr. McKenzie-Mohr (“Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” aka the environmental campaign bible) and hundreds of case studies, the most effectual means to change behavior is to implement changes in the system and navigate with and around attitudes as one would negotiate rapids while rafting in a strong current.

One must invoke carefully designed technological and structural fixes rather than bludgeoning new attitudes and lifestyles into people, which is rather like rafting upstream or rafting directly into rocks at full speed to a dramatic crash.

Pay as You Throw Away

In the case of waste, targeting behaviors rather than attitudes means implementing structural changes, like market incentives and formal sanctions, in order to ensure that refuse is diminished in quantity and becomes less trashy.

The city of San Francisco boasts a Bag Reduction Ordinance, Cigarette Litter Abatement Fee Ordinance and City Government Construction Recycled Content Ordinance, among countless other waste-reducing policies. A Bottled and Package Free Water Ordinance restricts sale of packaged water while increasing availability of drinking water in public areas. The Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance requires all residents to separate recyclables, compostables and landfill-bound trash appropriately, or pay consequential fines.

The result of this advanced legislature is that San Francisco diverts 80 percent of all waste away from the landfill (the highest of any major city in the United States) and will almost certainly reach zero-waste status by 2020.

San Francisco is not alone in this commendable fight against trash. The University of California system is also committed to going zero-waste by 2020 and currently diverts about 70 percent of all refuse by supporting the optimal sorting of waste with appropriate receptacles and facilities and supplementing with innovative systems and energetic campaigns.

The city of Seattle has gone straw-less with a ban on all straws and plastic utensils for businesses selling food and drink. Experts assess that this statute will prevent over 1 million plastic straws from circulating around Seattle over the course of just one month. Several European countries and cities have already banned single-use plastic items.

Waste Not, Want Not — and the World Wins

Stellar examples aside, there is an urgent need for universally higher standards. A zero-waste world requires not only individual dedication to reducing waste through exemplary reusing and recycling efforts but also (and more importantly) the establishment of formal institutions that support zero-waste living, such as large-scale prohibitions on unnecessary plastic products, improved recycling and composting facilities and increased fees that target industrial waste.

At present, the concept of a zero-waste society has only drizzled on contemporary calendars. Next on the agenda must be a serious attempt to smash the era of the omnipresent trash can and transition into a post-trash world.

Raina Sciocchetti, Unity College

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Raina Sciocchetti

Unity College

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