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Zero waste takes off

Published: June 21, 2024



Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the history of the zero waste movement and its impact; see part 1 here.

Our three legacy movements — recycling, anti-incineration and zero waste — are working expeditiously to reach 90% diversion with no incineration, organics out of landfills and no toxics in our packages or products. Communities, businesses and local governments today are equipped with strategic policies and programs that were not available when the three legacy movements emerged prior to 2000.

While the movement toward zero waste gains strength and momentum, so do the economic and environmental challenges that threaten us. Consider, for example, between 2012 and 2022, Maryland energy providers spent about $100 million subsidizing trash incinerators through that state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. A bill in the state legislature eliminates these payments and saves the state another $200 million between 2023 and 2030, according to testimony by Clean Water Action before the Maryland State Legislature in March.

With regard to our environment and nature itself, we have to eliminate the particulate emissions laden with microplastics, which represent our human fingerprints on ecological calamities. Plastic pollution, in particular, has transformed from an environmental crisis to a crisis of “critical human health,” as the recent documentary “Plastic People” makes clear. And then there are PFAS, chemicals with a virtually indestructible bond between chlorine and carbon molecules that, along with plastic, invade all of nature, including our bodies. Yet the plastics industry is telling our school children that there is nothing to worry about, as The Washington Post reported in February.

New strategies and tactics to rein in waste

The U.S. EPA has identified 100 local policies and programs that boost recycling. One of the most impactful is unit pricing or garbage metering, often called pay as you throw. Households are charged only for the waste they set out on the curb but not for recycling or composting. In practice, recycling can increase by 40% in one year. Cities adopting PAYT have reduced per capita waste generation from the US average of 4 pounds per day to less than 1 pound per day, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Bans and rewash initiatives focused on plastic products are having a major impact on economic, environmental and social problems as well. Scores of new companies are investing in wash systems that rely on reusable tableware in numerous jurisdictions banning single use plastic products. Durable plastic and stainless steel utensils are rewashed on site or picked up, cleaned and returned to the restaurant for use. Restaurant chains, sports and entertainment venues, government cafeterias and schools are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by switching to this new phenomenon, driven by local policy initiatives.

Venues that do not have wash facilities can obtain grants for this infrastructure from both federal programs and companies such as ReDish, RCup, Plastic Free Restaurants (and Schools), rWorld, Bold Reuse, We ReUse, and ReThink Disposables.

“We are starting to see a whole shift toward changing consumer behavior as scores of new reuse service companies are emerging,” said Chrise De Tournay, a zero waste adviser to government agencies and companies who tracks developments in this sector. “Local governments can lead the way to close the loop from one way plastic with an investment in rewash systems instead of single-use products.”

Right-to-repair laws requiring computer, automobile and farm equipment manufacturers to provide repair manuals and tools to customers and small repair businesses have been passed in 25 states.

Building deconstruction is spreading rapidly as new policies require deconstruction when buildings built before 1970 are taken down. In Baltimore, Second Chance, a nonprofit deconstruction enterprise, has 250 workers, up from six workers when they started in 2003. Around 90% of these workers are drawn from hard-to-employ people in the city and now have jobs with wages and benefits to raise a family and own a home. If the Baltimore City Council passes a bill requiring mandatory deconstruction, Second Chance CEO Mark Forster estimates that he will have to train and hire another 250 workers.

Another deconstruction company in Baltimore, Humanim, reported a zero recidivism rate for workers who were ex-offenders. The national rate for recidivism is 75%. Building deconstruction in Baltimore as elsewhere recycles people as well as building materials.

Deconstruction spread rapidly from its humble beginnings in the late 1990s as pilot projects took down World War II military barracks built with prized redwood lumber. Today the Reuse People, a deconstruction company based in San Diego, has over a dozen affiliates across the U.S. The Building Materials Reuse Association represents 32 robust for-profit, nonprofit and government programs in the U.S. and Canada.

“Deconstruction and reuse and construction and demolition recycling are on the minds of California cities and joint powers authorities triggered by new climate action plans or updates, as well as new construction and demolition waste ordinances required to meet the state’s Cal Green Code,” said Nicole Tai, owner of GreenLynx deconstruction company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Local ordinances in cities in California, Colorado and elsewhere require a bond from companies and require them to recycle 50% or more of all construction and demolition debris to have their bond money returned. At the national level, the EPA identifies deconstruction and reuse as examples of measures to include in state climate action plans funded under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Repair and resale of consumer products through retail thrift – appliances, textiles, furniture, mattresses and books – impact environmental, economic and social issues in the communities they serve. Iconic enterprises in this field include:

  • The Reuse Corridor serves the Central Appalachian regions of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
  • Habitat for Humanity operates 50 ReStores, which help stabilize low-income families and communities.
  • Independent enterprises that fulfill the same mission include:
    • Urban Ore, in Berkeley, California.
    • Rebuilding Center in Portland, Oregon.
    • Construction Junction in Pittsburgh.
    • Community Forklift in Washington, D.C.
    • The Repurpose Center in Gainesville, Florida.
    • Saint Vincent de Paul of Lane County operates mattress, textile, appliance, and furniture enterprises in Eugene, Oregon. It created the Cascade Alliance, which replicated 10 new community-based enterprises across the US. Each enterprise pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales taxes as their workers pay wage taxes to local and state governments.

Notable enterprises like RecycleForce in Indianapolis, which repurposes discarded products from hotels, airlines and sports stadiums, and HomeBoy Enterprises in Los Angeles, which works in e-scrap, focus on people. They provide low-skilled workers a pathway away from chronic unemployment and gangs toward homeownership, stable family and community life.

LiquiDonate is a new startup that diverts returned consumer goods and excess inventory from landfills to schools and nonprofit organizations in support of local economic circularity in Canada and the U.S. Upstream just released its business reuse and circular economy start-up directories at

Composting is the proverbial magic bullet for zero-waste campaigns. We are seeing Americans take to composting as we did to recycling in the 1970s. About 9% of the waste stream is now being composted, according to this year’s Composting State of Practice report by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, United States Composting Council and Desert Research Institute, and the expectation is that this will grow rapidly.

Composting combined with food waste reduction programs can readily double the country’s recycling rate within just a few years. In addition to managing food scraps through composting – and aerobic and anaerobic digestion – food waste reduction programs are proliferating and proving highly cost effective.

The public has demanded that comprehensive, distributive composting be implemented in all parts of the U.S. When a private composting company in Wilmington, Delaware, that was serving the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area 10 years ago failed, citizens pushed for public action. Compost programs were launched in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties and in D.C. Some are robust, some are maturing, but citizen action moved the region forward.

Nine states – California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – now have laws mandating that organics be diverted from landfill or incineration. A bill proposed in Maryland would impose a surcharge of $2 per ton on all waste landfilled or incinerated in the state. The dollars raised will be allocated in favor of small-scale composting.

In Cleveland, Rust Belt Riders demonstrates how community-based enterprises can start with collecting food discards from homes and bike trailers and grow to provide city-wide service with five trucks and 35 workers. Rust Belt Riders will host a national gathering of community-based compost enterprises and programs in October.

In New York, all large generators of organic discards must send materials to a compost facility if it is within 25 miles of the point of generation. Schools have been exempted from the regulations. Anna Giordano of We Future Cycle, Inc. is working to end that exclusion.

“Schools are large generators and there should be systemic composting and recycling programs in place, not just for financial reasons but chiefly for the educational and social benefits. Teaching students early that very small changes in daily life can make a huge difference is creating generational change,” she said.

“It was done with seatbelts, and it can surely be done with waste management and environmental awareness. And of course students will carry the recycling and composting knowledge to the entire family as curb collection programs are implemented in their towns.”

Organic materials make up 35% to 40% of the waste stream. There are year-round stable markets for finished compost and compost products in every part of the country. Quality material is valued at from $75 to $100 per ton, or three cubic yards. When applied to agriculture, compost restores eroding topsoil, conserves water and improves soil health. Economies of scale can be reached in your kitchen (vermicomposting), backyard, community and city. Composting results in a ripple effect for jobs in processing, landscaping, and nurseries and home gardening stores. Keeping organics out of landfills reduces leachate and methane gas emissions.

Anaerobic digestion facilities, which digest organic material to recover methane, also have an array of economies of scale from small units to manage manures on farms to industrial facilities. A 5,000-ton-per-year facility can digest scraps from school cafeterias, restaurant chains and entertainment venues.

There is a danger from large-scale anaerobic digestion plants. The plant coming online in Jessup, Maryland, is scaled at 120,000 tons per year. To assure that it can get sufficient materials to make a profit, the company is lobbying against programs that support smaller compost operations and farmer composting networks.


Minnesota’s reuse economy:

  • Creates 45,000 jobs.
  • Is valued at over $5 billion.
  • Avoids carbon emissions equivalent to 100,000 gas powered vehicles.
  • Could add 1,700 more jobs in electronic scrap reuse.

Source: Reuse Minnesota



  • Climate Pollution Reduction Grants.
  • Solid Waste Infrastructure Grants.
  • Recycling Education and Outreach.
  • Brownfields.
  • Pollution Prevention.
  • Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers.
  • Community Change.

U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Composting and Food Waste Reduction.
  • Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production.

U.S. Department of Energy:

  • Recycle-X Competition.
  • Strategy for Plastics Innovation.
  • Make It Prize.
  • Battery Manufacturing and Recycling.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  • Marine Debris Community Action Coalition.

Critical developments at the EPA

The incineration industry is aggressively fighting to protect its turf. Ongoing lobbying efforts are under way to persuade EPA to declare pyrolysis or gasification of garbage a non-incineration technology.

The public, especially environmentalists who are focused on plastic reduction, fear that incineration of plastic waste will only bring more virgin plastic pollution. Plastic particles already permeate every crack and crevice of the natural world, including our bodies. Microplastics are found in human brains and babies’ umbilical cords with unknown consequences.

Thanks to the work of the Energy Justice Network and its network of over 30 grassroots groups, the EPA has been challenged to justify its decades long claim that garbage incineration is a better waste management technique than landfilling. EJN and its network is further pressing EPA to recalculate its Waste Reduction Model, or WARM, which also has been a prop for determining that incineration is better than landfilling.

The model “gets it backwards when constantly showing results that burning trash (and landfilling ash) is better for the climate than directly landfilling trash. The opposite is true,” Energy Justice Network CEO Mike Ewall said. “Incinerators immediately shoot all of the carbon in trash into the atmosphere while much of the carbon in waste ends up stored in landfills, especially from plastics that don’t biodegrade.”

A new law in Oregon may also impact the fate of garbage incineration nationally. The justice network, working with anti-incineration forces, in Oregon succeeded in passing a requirement in 2023 that incinerators operating in the state must have continuous monitoring of emissions and report this information to the public.

By next year the landscape for incineration could change fundamentally. In late February, for example, the U.S. EPA updated the
National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter, tightening the standard for soot pollution from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA estimates that the new rule will save 4,200 lives, prevent 5,400 new cases of asthma and 10,000 emergency room visits and avoid 270,000 lost workdays each year.

The role of EPR

It remains to be seen how recently passed extended producer responsibility laws will impact the recycling and incineration industry. Industry giants have overseen 20 years of no growth in the national recycling rate. What will the producer responsibility organizations created by EPR laws to oversee recycling and composting change? Will incineration – in cement kilns, industrial boilers and/or in pyrolysis plants – become part of a greenwashed version of zero waste? Already burning options are included in many bad EPR proposals around the U.S., such as California’s SB 54, which may include chemical recycling. An EPR bill in New York prepared by Beyond Plastics environmental group specifically excludes chemical recycling.

It all depends on whether grassroots strategies and values are written into the governing rules and regulations. The fear at the grassroots level is that corporate giants in the packaging and plastic industry can easily gain control of an EPR bureaucracy, or producer responsibility organization, and promote incineration as an acceptable management practice. This has happened in British Columbia. This would pervert the nature of EPR from a policy of polluter pays to a policy of polluter controls.

Some states are considering using consultants to manage the PRO. This also is worrisome for grassroots zero waste advocates. Why contract out for essential long-term services that require skilled public servants to manage? Building capacity and institutional memory within the public sector is essential.

Elizabeth Balkan, Director of ReLoop North America, said EPR could present a barrier to the expansion of reuse regimens.

“EPR could be used as a tool for accelerating or decelerating source reduction,” she said. “Producers will be focused on securing the cheapest possible programs, and because reuse solutions are cost-effective long-term but require significant upfront capital, they will not voluntarily make the investments.”

Balkan continued: “Developing reuse targets and incentives, as well as funding requirements, is critical to achieve system performance and source reduction. Without this, we could be locking ourselves into several more decades of a carbon-intensive toxic and polluting single use packaging economy.”

Any city or county seeking financial support for capital investment in zero-waste infrastructure and enterprises can apply to numerous federal grant programs.

Will this be enough to stop the plastic/pyrolysis onslaught?

Most recently, PFAS chemicals have drawn attention from scientists and activists in addition to well-known pollutants emanating from municipal waste incinerators. Incineration of PFAS material produces smaller versions of the chemical.

PFAS were developed in the ’40s, and by the ’70s began appearing in consumer products and eventually in nature and humans. They are manufactured mostly in the U.S. and Europe by two companies, 3M and DuPont, but are highly mobile via rain, snow and soil. The companies were “deeply aware” of the dangers, explained David Bond of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College during a presentation to the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions in March. Most recently, the EPA designated two PFAS compounds as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund program.

Living downstream from plastic manufacturing or military bases is dangerous, Bond has said, as PFAS contribute to an array of health problems including cancer, obesity and hypertension. Plastic manufacturing plants have proliferated in recent years in the US: 55 since 2012, with companies proposing to build 33 plants, though that number could rise, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

Extremely low levels of exposure to PFAS can trigger these serious ailments and more. Yet the petrochemical industry is fighting back against the common-sense efforts to stop plastics from impacting the environment. The proliferation of these plants will allow the industry to produce more and more plastic. Industry is heavily lobbying to exempt this technology from all air pollution rules; incinerators are not incinerators, they claim, but rather are energy manufacturing plants. In the past few years these lobbying efforts at the state level have convinced 25 states to adopt this rebranding and make the plants eligible for public financing.

Since federal laws preempt state laws, the industry is focusing its forces on the EPA to reclassify pyrolysis. Such false rebranding would open the door to more and more plastic pollution. In addition, the industry is targeting special new tax credits for electricity generated by pyrolysis plants.

The environmental movement in the 1960s was a candle in the dark for Americans. Today, the warnings from plastic production and global warming are a burning bush. Plastic particles have entered our lungs, our brains and our babies. Global warming is leading us headlong into ecological collapse. Now is the time for grassroots activists to aggressively approach their officials to take advantage of available funds, technology and businesses to eliminate incineration and implement zero waste. We are at the take-off stage for achieving zero waste. It is within reach.

As before, we must organize at the local level to protect the gains we have already made and overcome these new challenges. Solid waste management decisions are made at the local level, where activists can secure zero waste policies and programs, and which ripple upwards into state and federal actions. We need to vote for zero waste champions to maintain and accelerate this process.

Neil Seldman is cofounder of Zero Waste USA, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Zero Waste International Alliance and Save the Albatross Coalition. He directs the Recycling Cornucopia Program at Zero Waste USA, which provides pro bono assistance to community and environmental organizations as well as small businesses.

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Plastics Recycling Conference 2024: Charting a course in plastic recycling

Published: June 21, 2024


Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling

In the showdown between recycled and virgin plastic resins, recycling can’t prevail without more supportive public policy, greater buy-in from the public and other outside reinforcements, several plastics recycling leaders agreed in March.

Two numbers make the scale of the imbalance clear. The recycling sector collects roughly 5 billion pounds of bottles, films and other plastics for recycling each year in the U.S., according to the research and consulting firm Stina Inc. U.S. plastic producers, meanwhile, made more than 8 billion pounds of new resin just in the month of February, as tallied by the American Chemistry Council, a national association of chemical manufacturers.

Far from the early days of plastic recycling, when reclaimed resin was seen as a more cost-effective and somewhat embarrassing alternative, recycled plastic is now sought after in many contexts but outcheapened and outmatched by a worldwide glut of the new stuff.

“If we don’t deal with the price differential, at the end of the day – I believe this – nothing we do matters,” Stephen Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, told an audience during Resource Recycling’s Plastics Recycling Conference in the Dallas area earlier this year. APR owns Resource Recycling, Inc., which publishes this magazine.

“Some call it headwinds we face, I call it the attacks that we face across the board,” he added. “A lot of us are here trying to solve a problem that someone else creates.”

That was one of many takeaways speakers shared at the annual conference, where around 2,500 attendees gathered in Grapevine, Texas, for 20 sessions that delved into product design, artificial intelligence, chemical recycling techniques and other important trends.

The lay of the land

In a series of panel discussions, Alexander and other experts painted a somber picture of an industry in some ways stuck in a rut, though they also identified several levers that could help pry it out. George Smilow, chief operating officer at New York-based PQ Recycling, recalled starting his career back in the 1970s.

“Back then I believe there were about 50 to 60 PET reclaimers in North America, and the return rate was 30%,” he said. “Today there are about half, and the return rate is about 27%.”

New plastic production, on the other hand, has gone gangbusters to the point of overkill, said Joel Morales, vice president of polyolefins Americas for Chemical Market Analytics.

China is a big driver, he said. Many new plants there are tied to fossil fuel refineries, insulating them from low prices amid an oversupply, and projects are also trying to get ahead of anticipated regulation and building difficulties. But it’s a global pattern.

“From a virgin resin supplier perspective, we’ve only added more capacity since last year, and we’ve removed demand in the virgin forecast,” Morales said. “It’s almost like people do exactly the opposite of what we suggest they do.”

On the recycling side, companies and government programs face a disjunction between supply and demand for recycled plastics, with simultaneously too much and too little material on hand. With curbside recycling flat for years, supply can fall short of sustainability goals set by major brands, for example.

Courtesy of Stina Inc.

“The engineering and technology that we use today is amazing compared to when we first started – we can do just about anything. The only thing we can’t engineer is getting more bottles,” Smilow said. “It’s not something that you can just go out and buy. It exists only if people return the bottles and they’re in some sort of a system where we can get those bottles and make something of them, return them to the system.”

Scott Saunders, general manager for KW Plastics in Alabama, said recycling must do a better job of reaching mid-sized, mid-U.S. cities to get more inflow.

“We can build all the lines we want to build, so can Jon,” Saunders said, referring to his co-panelist, Jon Vander Ark, president and CEO of Republic Services – both companies have invested heavily in expanding their recycled plastic processing capacity in the past few years. “If we don’t have the material to put on those lines, it’s just equipment.”

Demand can appear strong at least for certain resins and contexts. After Republic began building facilities to process post-consumer plastic, “we had 50 customers come up to us and say ‘we’ll buy every molecule that comes out the back door of all five of your facilities,’” Vander Ark said.

Yet demand can falter or lag when sustainability goals fall by the wayside in the face of low virgin costs, concerns over food safety or other factors.
Some post-consumer films have received no-objection letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their use in food-grade pouches, but “we’re still seeing some resistance in that actually being commercialized,” said Cherish Changala, vice president of sustainability and public affairs at the Arkansas-based reclaimer Revolution.

“In many cases, you can say they’re able to recycle material, but it’s that demand that’s not there,” she said. “What’s it going to take to get us over that hurdle?”

With all of this in mind, the question posed by a session title – can PCR still compete? – has a clear answer, said panelist David Nix, president of Pennsylvania-based Green Group Consulting.

“No, it can’t compete,” he said, pointing to the myriad collection, shipping, processing and cleaning costs tied around recycling’s neck. “That’s a no-win situation. It’s just not going to work. The things that will make that work are legislation.”

‘Take the devil out of plastics’

Several panelists joined the call for recycling-friendly policy. Nix and Alexander favored state laws requiring that new packages include minimum proportions of recycled content, as some states have done, as a way to essentially force demand into being.

Vander Ark said brands’ verbal commitments don’t always reach into the companies’ cost-focused procurement offices without that legal poke. “That world is starting to rotate because of regulation, and we’re seeing that in California, New Jersey and other states. And that’s the reason why we’re making this investment.”

Boosting recycling tax credits to match other industries, making recycling programs more consistent in the materials they accept and requiring manufacturers to buy their recycled resin domestically would all help as well, Alexander said. Extended producer responsibility seems promising, but he’s waiting to see results.

“The plastics recycling industry is being left behind, because we’re tasked to do it all by ourselves,” he said.

Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO at Stina Inc. and a moderator of two sessions, pressed panelists to keep a deeper need in mind: making recycling worthwhile, in all senses of the word. Recycling does a lot of good, including for the environment and public health, but this isn’t always obvious or tangible for the general public.

“I can either throw it away, where it’s easy, or I can recycle. It’s a little extra effort. There’s no economic benefit for them to do that. So what is the other motivation that they have?” she said. “Is there something that we haven’t thought of yet that really provides the value on PCR, that represents all those things that society actually needs? It is a public service, and we’re not seeing that translated to the reclaimers.”

Brian King, executive vice president of marking at Advanced Drainage Systems out of Ohio, pointed to local policy changes like higher tipping fees for waste than for recycling. More broadly, he said the recycling industry needs to tell its story in a better and more unified way, echoing comments from Alexander and others.

“It is showing what happens to the product, showing what a recycled material does versus a virgin material,” he said, adding that he objects to the pejorative term “downcycling” when his company turns a single-use item into one that can last decades.

“We tend to look for a silver bullet. Chemical recycling’s going to save us all, some EPR is going to save us all, right? And it’s not,” King said. “It’s collaboration, it’s working together.”

When Ajit Perera, vice president of post-consumer operations at Talco Plastics in California, joined the state’s advisory board for its recycled-content law, he was the only plastics person in the room.

“Everyone wants to demonize plastics, let’s not use plastics, let’s go to something different, paper, so on and so forth,” he said of his fellow board members. “And I said my mantra here is actually to take the devil out of the plastics.

“I think we should all be passionate and we should push the word out that plastic is here to stay, and it can be only sustained if we recycle it,” Perera went on. “It’s up to us to go out there and preach.”

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

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