Public Comment

Commentary: Zero Waste: Easier Said Than Done

By Arthur R. Boone
Friday March 02, 2007

I thank the Daily Planet for providing such extensive coverage of the zero waste transfer station plan now seeking public attention. As the rhetoric about zero waste reaches forward to the “put up or shut up” phase, a few concerns rise to the surface.  

1. Nobody’s ever done this before on a big scale. There are probably 10,000 to 15,000 people in the United States who have taken a zero waste pledge. In manner similar to a chastity or abstinence pledge, the zero waste pledge involves a commitment not to use any garbage services but to reuse, recycle or compost all products and materials that come into your hands. I took the pledge in 1986; it took a while to develop the infrastructure in my house and yard and to find the markets for the materials that would allow me to fulfill this pledge, but now about 99 percent of what I dispose of goes to reuse, recycling or composting; the other materials have no markets, no matter how hard I look.  

But this model of behavior has never been rolled out on a large scale. The president of DuPont said 10 years ago, “Zero emissions, zero waste, zero accidents: makes sense to me.” As a goal on paper, or a CEO talking point, it’s great, but DuPont still has plenty of garbage. The current poster child for zero waste in California is a Japanese firm that makes machines to produce airline baggage labels, but they burn 13 percent of their materials outflow in an incinerator, not what anyone in Berkeley wants to do. So, we’re gonna invent the wheel here.  

2. Lots of materials have no scrap markets. Recycling has made progress so far because the technologies to recycle paper, metals and glass have been around for centuries; what we’ve learned in the last 20 years has been how to recycle plastics (not a complete success story yet but a matter many Berkeleyans refuse to (or begrudgingly) acknowledge) and some wood products. But then think about particle board; seven billion square feet made in the last reported year and nobody wants it for reprocessing. Or mylar: Hershey’s switched their candy bar wrapper from a foil-backed paper liner and glossy paper wrapper to a single layer enclosed mylar package; nobody anywhere will recycle this stuff (or foil-backed paper, for that matter). Packagers and product manufacturers in the United States are totally free to design and market products and packaging that have no further use; the extended producer responsibility laws currently much touted are moving very slowly on products and packaging and the packaging professionals are fighting them every step of the way (with a few exceptions).  

Building a zero waste transfer station isn’t going to change this state-of-affairs very much. Someday we will look at a non-recyclable material like an incurable disease; there will be an NIH-type braintrust that will spend public (or private) money figuring out how to give this product or that material a new, end-of-life, destination; “recyclable or ban” the zealots cry. But it hasn’t happened yet, and Berkeley’s success with a ZWTS will only underscore the lack of materials planning and control elsewhere in our culture.  

3. A lot of stuff gets thrown away because people don’t know what to do with it; the markets may exist but the sorter is uninformed. Recently at a meeting of recycling coordinators from San Francisco hotels, I said, “It’s easier to put something into storage than to take it out.” All those present nodded knowingly. Yesterday I was at the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale warm-up show; I walked in by the 30 yard debris box from the garbage company in which a volunteer was happily dumping old audio tapes and 33 LP records; she didn’t think they would sell. Putting a zero waste slogan on a building isn’t going to create or find a path to market for the products and materials that enter there. And will everyone who works there know what they’re doing? Not in my experience.  

4. Our society disinvests in the end-of-life. You can do a funeral and burial for less cost than one day in ICU. When my friend’s 94 year old father had a heart attack, the doctor shrugged his shoulders and asked, without words, “He’s an old man; what do you expect?”  

There’s a lot of those feelings of rejection and low expectation about used materials and products in our culture; “Let it go; we’ve got more; why do you want to fool with that old stuff.” It’s easy to get a fetish about old this or old that but a lot of people go broke every year trying to get others interested in what they think is important but the world thinks is trash.  

This is particularly a problem among so-called solid waste professionals. The upper echelon of this occupation believes that people don’t care about their discards and won’t pay for their proper management. “Garbage is,” my friend says, “a simple answer to the Industrial Revolution.” The cost of something we buy in a store is 97 percent putting it together and getting it to the store; the materials in the things we buy are worth mere pennies on the dollar. When all you have to make a venture worthwhile is the material, you’re between a rock and a hard place; the annals of our recycling industry are full of folks who’ve gone broke thinking used this or used that ought to be valuable.  

5. A lot of stuff gets thrown away because it’s dirty. I worked two and a half years at the transfer station in San Francisco. Presumably leaving Gap to work for Levi’s, Sally Smith puts all her Gap clothes in a bag and they go to the dump. “Why doesn’t she give them to Goodwill or Salvation Army?”, you ask. I don’t know, she just doesn’t. I can pull them out and send them to St. Vincent dePaul’s; that’ll work. 

But what if they’re dirty? Off to the dump. Yesterday I pulled a nice sweatshirt out of a garbage can on Durant Street; it had had bleach dripped on the blue material and was unsalable in America (our poor people are proud, or they can get it at Target). It might end up in Afghanistan, warming some refugee, but it’ll never sell in the states. “Oh, it could be re-dyed,” say the liberals. 

So, I wish the City of Berkeley lots of luck. I would trust Dan Knapp more than ESA to come up with a workable plan, but it will take a lot of “what if” questions along the way to test any models that will get built. Turning personal behavior into public policy is a lot easier than implementing that policy amidst the myriad of stuff we easily trash today. My wife’s cousin’s husband was an engineer on the design of the North Slope oil drilling platforms in the 1970s. “It’s a bitch,” he said, “you do all the drawings and reviews and simulated stress tests but you don’t really know if it’ll work until you float it up there and see what the wind and the ice will do.” Hopefully, anybody’s plan will have lots of cautious questions asked and answered. Berkeley might well be the first out of the gate, and that’s always a dangerous position. Remember the new Denver Airport’s innovative baggage handling system, or Betamax, etc.  


Arthur R. Boone is an Oakland resident, a recycling professional since 1983 and the environmental representative on the Alameda County Recycling Board.