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Recology - the Urban Quest For "Zero Waste"

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 After years of burning or burying their waste, some cities are getting serious about garbage.

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.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S., where the Environmental Protection Agency estimates only about a third of waste is recycled or composted. The cities are getting the job done largely by having citizens and businesses sort trash more carefully, to recycle as much as possible.

Officials in these cities think they can go further. "It's good; doesn't mean we stop there," says Tim Croll, solid-waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. "We know the word 'low-hanging fruit' is overused, but there is still more stuff to be gotten out of that waste stream."

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.

Cities can pass ordinances and require households and businesses to recycle and compost, but "they can't control the behavior of residents," says Chaz Miller, the state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group for the

waste and recycling industry. "There is still a lot of material to dispose of in this country, and it's going to remain that way for a long time," he adds.

Indeed, despite increased recycling in recent years, Americans are still prodigious wasters. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, Americans threw out roughly 243 million tons of trash-or about 4.34 pounds of garbage per person, per day, according to data from the EPA. After recycling, composting and incineration, about 132 million tons ended up in landfills that year.  


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