By Si Jun Lee
Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages use of recycling, reusing, and composting to divert waste from being sent to landfills or incinerators. The movement originated in the mid-1980s, when PhD chemist Paul Palmer founded Zero Waste Systems in California with the goal of finding new homes for most of the chemicals being excessed by the electronic industry. In the last 10 years, however, the movement has transitioned from theory into action. A number of large U.S. cities—including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Austin, etc.—have already adopted plans to work toward zero waste. Companies like Thrive Market, Subaru, Xerox, and Anheuser-Busch are also moving toward zero-waste manufacturing plants.
There are obvious benefits associated with zero waste, such as reduction of negative environmental impacts like climate change, air pollution and the waste of precious resources. Less obvious are economic benefits such as additional jobs for recycling and diversion services.
But is zero waste truly possible? Sure, there are models like the Japanese town of Kamikatsu, where there are no garbage trucks and the 1,700 residents must sort their trash into 34 categories before bringing it to the recycling plan themselves. But what about urban cities like New York, and San Francisco? One way that some large cities are achieving “zero-waste” is by using waste-to-energy (WTE) methods—essentially, burning trash as fuel for generating power, instead of coal, oil, or natural gas. In China, WTE is viewed as a low-cost renewable energy strategy, and the Chinese government is building the largest WTE plant in the world, that will turn a third of Shenzhen’s trash into energy every day. Similarly, New York, with non-existent local landfill space, aims to achieve 90% of waste diversion, by relying on WTE to dispose of 25% of their waste. Other cities, like San Francisco, do not view WTE as an acceptable part of a zero-waste plan. In achieving 80% diversion rate for waste, San Francisco processed less than 1% of its waste through WTE. However, it is uncertain whether San Francisco will be able to continue working towards true “zero waste” without greater reliance on WTE.
Some experts question whether WTE is the right solution, due to the possibility that it would generate harmful residual pollutants in the air, land, or water. For residents living near WTE plants, this is a grave concern. In Shenzhen, construction of the largest WTE plant—located just north of the city’s major drinking water reservoirs—was met with protests by several dozen residents fearing air and water contamination from the ash, wastewater, and airborne pollutants of the incinerated waste.
Until zero-waste cities become the norm, there is little hard scientific data to either validate or refute these fears. Use of WTE as part of a zero-waste strategy can be a solution, or it can be another big problem. Thus, the question is no longer, can large cities achieve zero-waste? The question is, how?