Zero Waste - a beautiful circle
October 18, 2017
After gathering public input, Mayor Walsh set a goal of launching a zero waste planning process in the 2014 Climate Action Plan update. Since then, the City and community supporters alike have been working diligently to translate that goal into action through research and community-level events, like the 2016 Zero Waste Municipal Leaders Summit.
This Greenovate Boston post is the first in a new series on the concept of zero waste in Boston, the implications for stakeholders across the city, and what you can do at home, work, and school to help us reach our goal together.
What is zero waste?
As consumers, we buy, use, and discard the physical stuff that makes up our everyday lives. This includes everything that eventually gets thrown out -- from discarded containers, to old cell phones, to construction waste, to your funky dinner leftovers.
And all that stuff really adds up. In 2016, the City produced an estimated 600,000 tons of municipal solid waste. (Municipal solid waste is a technical term used to describe all the combined physical stuff that is discarded in any waste stream across the residential and commercial sectors). 242,000 tons of that came from Boston residents, and they recycled and composted 21 percent of it.
But is all that discarded material really at the end of its life? Most of the stuff in the trash has a lot left to give or can be remade into something useful. If we send it to a landfill or incinerator, all that potential is sadly lost.
Zero waste is a conscious change from the use-and-toss mentality to a more cyclical mindset. By considering a material's next use when we go to throw it “away”, we give that stuff the chance to provide value again. Today's aluminum soup can can become a kid's bicycle frame next year.
From a waste management perspective, the ‘zero’ in “zero waste” means that as much solid waste as possible is reclaimed, and essentially none is left to be burned or landfilled. Additionally, zero waste reaches beyond diverting the waste we currently generate to urge us to produce less trash in the first place and appreciate quality and longevity in what we have.
Why is zero waste important to Boston?
In our approach to waste reduction, the City of Boston recognizes the internationally accepted definition put forward by the Zero Waste International Alliance:
“Zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
Zero waste provides Boston with bountiful opportunities: better health for children and adults, good green jobs in the innovative fields of material repair, reuse, and remanufacture, and a greater sense of community as people share their resources and address social inequities.
Our zero waste goal is also important because of the big impacts waste has on individuals, communities, and the whole city. It means less pollution in places like the Charles River, less potentially harmful greenhouse gas emissions from factories of the products we use, and less waste burning in incinerators.
What does zero waste look like at home and work?
Yes, the shift to zero waste will require policy and behavior changes at the municipal and industry levels. But, there is a lot you can do right now to start living a zero waste lifestyle.
You can begin simply by separating your recyclables into the blue bin, putting your leaves out for composting or in your own backyard compost bin, and dropping your organics off at one of our neighborhood Project Oscar bins or in your garbage disposal. Find creative re-uses for items at home or work instead of buying more, and shop for quality and durability instead of cheapness and disposability. Hosting a clothing swap or showing a neighbor how to sort their waste are also good ways to get started.
Businesses can get in on the zero waste action too; consider getting a waste audit, setting up food waste composting, and assessing how reduction, reuse, and remanufacturing can improve your products and services.
What are some zero waste considerations at the city level?
The City of Boston’s current set of policies and services offer a great starting point for zero waste. We provide residential trash and recycling collection across the city and enforce public sanitation codes to ensure legal dumping and healthy streets. We require large residential buildings to provide recycling for their residents, and require commercial trash haulers to offer recycling services as well. These serve as early steps in the transition process.
The City may consider a variety of factors to move us towards the zero waste goal: our ability to negotiate waste contracts, issue hauler permits, enforce regulations, plan neighborhood development, and incentivize new job creation and innovation.
This is a big goal. How will we get there?
One step at a time. As part of its Climate Action Plan, the City is starting the process of zero waste planning, and this blog post is the first of a series that will explore the essentials of zero waste in Boston. Stay tuned in to Greenovate as we share progress from this multi-year process.
If you’d like to follow along as we discuss the ins and outs of going zero waste, you can subscribe to our general email list here. If you would like to receive periodic updates about the more technical side of the municipal waste management planning process, sign up here.