Notes on waste, water, whatever
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All for nothing: Seattle’s zero-waste commitment

Recycling glass in Seattle

I recently watched an online documentary that filled me with solid-waste envy. Unwasted: The Future of Business on Earth details how companies, institutions, political leaders, and activists are reducing waste in and around Seattle. It’s a pretty good, if somewhat staid, primer on how landfills work (or don’t), how many recycling programs fail to capture all they can, and how a zero-waste framework can guide cities to a more sustainable future. (Zero Waste is a rhetorical term: advocates believe we can reasonably divert 90 percent of our waste from landfills and incinerators — including high-tech gasifiers — within the next ten years. To learn more about how, read this uplifting article from the Sustainable Cities Network.)

Why did the doc make me green? Because of the tremendous enthusiasm for, and political will directed toward, reducing consumption, reusing, and recovering resources in the Pacific Northwest. Where I live, in New York City, it’s difficult to even find out where our waste is going, let alone why businesses are rarely penalized for failing to recycle. (New York City households recycle a miserable 15 percent of their waste, compared with Seattle’s 51 and San Francisco’s 77 — see this Green City Index from Siemens for other metropolitan averages.) One talking head in the film urges viewers to “visit your landfill and see what it looks like.” Ha, I said to myself. My waste is exported far, far away, and landfill managers in the East would rather dump a dead body than let me in the front gate. (Read Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash for my personal work-around.)

According to Unwasted (which was produced by Seattle’s Sage Environmental Services in partnership with PorterWorks), landfilling materials is more expensive than recycling (alas, this isn’t true in the vast middle of the country, where land values are lower), and maintaining and monitoring a landfill can cost a municipality $20 million over its mandatory 30-year post-closure period. The film stresses the significance of transparency in both manufacturing and disposal. “If more people knew what went into a product, they’d make an educated decision” about buying it in the first place, says another talking head. An excellent point, and a good reason for all elementary school teachers to ask their students, “Do you know how this pencil sharpener (backpack, T-shirt, etc.) was made?”

Of course, Seattle has a lot going for it: a density high enough to achieve economies of scale, an educated population, access to markets for recyclable materials (including food and yard waste), and volume-based disposal fees that reward household recycling over landfilling. Maybe it’s time for New York to reconsider a switch to pay-as-you-throw as well. (Here’s NRDC, in 1997, on the subject.)

Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons


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