Moving toward zero waste

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Early American Indians understood the concept of zero waste in a way few modern-day Americans do.

After hunting a buffalo and eating its meat, for example, they did not bury the remains. The hide was used for tepee covers and dresses. Muscle sinew was used for bows. Horns became cups and ladles; bladders became pouches and medicine bags. Even the buffalo’s own waste was used as fuel for fires or for ceremonial smoking.

Though the average Vermonter today generates the equivalent of one buffalo in waste a year – 2,000 pounds, or one ton – we aren’t nearly as ingenious in our reuse and recycle efforts as our early counterparts.

Local and national waste experts say that can change.

“I can market about 90 percent of what’s in your trash bin,” said Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, a Colorado-based nonprofit that focuses on zero waste initiatives internationally. “What does that do to your current landfill life? What if you achieve 90 (percent waste reduction) within the next five years, seven years? … We need to understand that every investment we make in our zero waste system is actually an investment in doubling the life of a current landfill.”

For some in Williston, there may be extra motivation to invest in doubling the life of Vermont’s current landfills. Williston trash currently gets trucked to Coventry and Moretown, but the Chittenden Solid Waste District hopes to construct a new landfill in Williston to accommodate Chittenden County trash. The landfill, planned for Redmond Road, would start operating in 2011 at the earliest, according to district officials.

Lombardi, who visited Vermont earlier this fall to meet with solid waste district representatives and state officials, said he compliments Vermont and Tom Moreau of the Chittenden Solid Waste District for all of the “good work” that’s been done so far.

“( Vermont’s) done a lot,” Lombardi said by phone last week. “You’re so much better than Colorado or the whole Rocky Mountain West. You’ve taken this ‘end of pipe thing’ pretty far. It’s time for you all to go upstream.”

“Going upstream” includes approving local ordinances and resolutions supporting zero waste goals, Lombardi said. It is cities, states and nations making decisions based on the assumption that waste – including toxic waste – is not necessary.

The European Union, Lombardi said, has outlawed six toxic chemicals from packaging components. South Korea has banned non-biodegradable packaging. Styrofoam is no longer allowed for restaurant take-out containers in Oakland, Calif, he said.

“If it costs them a nickel more, that’s going to get passed down to the customer,” Lombardi said. “But guess what, you’re going to pay more than a nickel to maintain a landfill or incinerator.”

Julie Hackbarth, a solid waste section chief of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Waste Management Division, agrees that packaging is part of what stands in the way of Vermont meeting its waste reduction goals.

For the last five years, Vermont has hovered around a diversion rate of 30 percent – meaning that 30 percent of the residential and commercial waste generated is diverted from landfills through recycling, reuse or composting.

But that’s a backwards slide from the mid-1990s when the state’s diversion rate hovered around 35 percent. And it’s far from the state’s goal to keep 50 percent of municipal trash out of landfills by 2005, according to a Vermont Agency of Natural Resources report analyzing its 2001 solid waste management plan.

“Many of the factors affecting the diversion rate are beyond the control of ANR (Agency of Natural Resources) and cannot be addressed solely with Vermont-specific programs,” the report reads.

Donna Barlow Casey, executive director of the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District that serves communities around Montpelier, gave an example.

“Why should citizens and municipalities bear the burden of attempting to fund the recycling of computers, for instance?” Barlow Casey wrote in an e-mail. “Why aren’t computers designed for multi-year upgradability, expandability, and recyclability?”

Manufacturers should bear responsibility for ensuring their packaging can be reused and recycled, zero waste supporters say.

Hackbarth said the Agency of Natural Resources is in the process of hiring consultants to help the state focus waste prevention improvements. Partnerships with other states and organizations may be key to making progress, she said.

Barlow Casey, whose district has adopted a zero waste philosophy, said if she were a legislator she would introduce legislation requiring Vermont to adopt a moratorium on landfills for the next 10 years. Following that, she would introduce more stringent “pay as you throw” legislation; that, she said, would force more creative approaches.

Some contend that getting to zero waste is impossible in modern society, so why even bother trying? Lombardi said zero waste is a journey, not a destination.

Barlow Casey agrees:

“It’s interesting to me that the dialogue around zero waste shifts to prove how it can happen rather than ‘Wow, if we can achieve half of that, we would be even further along.’”