Zero Waste Challenge: How to make changes in your daily life to reduce waste

By: Guest Contributor, Joe Baker

It may not be the sexiest report of the year, but there were some interesting takeaways in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Municipal Solid Waste Fact Sheet, released in June 2015. “Zero waste” is a term and ideal that is growing in popularity: the idea is that a household, city or even an entire country could produce no net waste.

The United States is inching in the right direction. According to the EPA, in 2013 our per capita municipal solid waste was down by a third of a pound to 4.4 pounds per person per day since the peak in 2000. Even more exciting, recycling continued to increase, topping off at more than 34 percent—more than double the recycling rate 30 years ago.

But there’s still a lot of work to do, which is why cities and counties are trying new ideas and policies to make it easier for their communities to reduce waste.


shutterstock_156179246More communities are embracing green bins and implementing composting programs. San Francisco has required composting since 2009, and in 2014, Vermont became the first state to include mandatory composting in its Universal Recycling Law.

Composting is one of the best ways to not only reduce your waste, but also produce something valuable for your community. When food waste ends up in landfills, it’s packed so tightly, there’s not enough oxygen for it to biodegrade and improve soil quality. By contrast, compost creates a rich soil coveted by gardeners. Some programs exploit this connection, like one school composting program in East Harlem, which teaches kids to compost and then uses the product to fertilize local community gardens.

Step Up Recycling

As exciting as it is that recycling rates have doubled in the last generation, a 34 percent recycle rate means that two-thirds of waste still goes to landfills. That’s not surprising: Just 35 percent of households and 10 percent of businesses recycle. Localities have taken steps to make recycling easier, notably the popular single-stream recycling systems, in which all recyclable materials are thrown into one bin, making recycling an easier choice. Recently these systems have come under scrutiny as overzealous homeowners throw more in blue bins, resulting in high sorting costs. The challenge will be reducing these costs while still supporting policies that engender a culture of recycling. Folks at home can help by being a bit more choosy.

Plastic Bag Bans

shutterstock_181487378Plastic bag bans take waste reduction a step further: rather than come up with better ways to deal with the waste we produce, why not just make less of it in the first place? According to the Surfrider Foundation’s self-admitted incomplete list, cities in 18 states have regulated single-use plastic bags. California and Hawaii even have statewide bans. These laws inevitably stir up controversy (and, of course, a backlash from the plastics industry), but importantly they raise awareness about our culture of disposability. Plastic bags are an environmental scourge, as the Texas-sized Pacific Garbage Patch illustrates. Policies that force us to pay for disposability remind us that lots of disposables could be replaced by something durable, like a canvas tote for groceries.

Reaching zero waste won’t be easy. But with a concerted effort by individuals combined with policies that encourage people to use fewer disposable items and make it easier to route trash away from landfills, we can make big strides.

Joe Baker is the Vice President, Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts, and all editorial content. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward.org and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.

Compost image and tote bag image via Shutterstock.

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