Zero Waste

Appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice, June 2008, page 15
  • Southern Sierran, June 2009 as ‘Thinking Outside the Dump: Zero Waste’
  • Fullerton Observer, Oct. 2009, page 11, as ‘Zero Waste: Thinking Outside the Dump’

Zero Waste!
Let’s Get Out of This Dump

by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D .

We are a throw-away society

Our throw-away habits are making a dump out of our world.

A fond memory from my childhood is of visiting the neighborhood “dump” with my dad to drop off whatever refuse, like old tires, we could not burn in our backyard incinerator.

Nowadays, the local dump has been supplanted by centralized landfills, and major restrictions have been placed on backyard incineration. Our waste stream has been transformed also since the introduction of petroleum-based plastics, single-use disposables, and packaging excess. Too, products once designed for durability and repair have been replaced with flimsier versions intended to be tossed and replaced.

In short, we have become a throw away society.

As of 2006, per capita waste generation in the U.S. was 4.6 lbs/day, up from 2.7 lbs/day in 1960, according to the USEPA.

Californians increasingly wasteful: In California, total per capita waste generation shot up to 13.7 lbs/day in 2006, reflecting a 3.2 lb daily increase per person in just 6 years. Note that these state figures appear higher than the national ones because the state includes some weighty items, like demolition concrete, in its calculations.

Altogether, Californians produced 92.2 million tons of waste in 2006 waste. Through recycling, composting and transformation (e.g. burning waste to produce energy), 54% was diverted from landfills, leaving 42.2 million tons still landfill-bound. Even though the diversion rate has been increasing over time, the tonnage sent to landfills continues to rise because per capita waste and population are increasing too.

Together with urban sprawl, the consequence is that landfills are filling up and prospects for new landfills are limited. Orange County’s three landfills, for instance, are expected to have reached capacity within 30 years. Groundwater and air pollution from landfills create additional problems.

Our oceans too have become repositories of non-biodegradable plastic debris – the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach has measured 6 times more plastic than zooplankton in some areas of the Pacific.

Orange County businesses commit to zero waste: Such alarming statistics have led to the realization that the idea of “away” when it comes to waste disposal is a luxury of the past.

Enter zero waste (ZW), a fundamental reconceptualization of waste as a valuable resource. ZW starts with prevention of trash through “green” product design. By using non-toxic materials, configuring products for reuse and repair, and directing unavoidable discards back into the pool of resource materials, disposable waste is avoided.

Local businesses are finding that adopting a ZW philosophy is good for the bottom line as well as the environment.

Earth Friendly Movers in Huntington Beach, for example, literally turns landfill waste into profit. The company extracts plastic containers from landfills for conversion into durable moving boxes rented out cheaply. The boxes are home-delivered on palettes made from recycled baby diapers and in trucks run on bio-diesel and used vegetable oil. Waste sludge salvaged from paper recyclers is refashioned into packing materials that replace bubble wrap & foam peanuts and later serve as garden compost. After the move, the boxes are retrieved for reuse hundreds of times before grinding them down to make new boxes. “It’s all about closing the loop,” says company founder Spencer Brown.

Brown claims customers can save 50% on moving costs. As to the company’s profitability, he says it’s “beyond lucrative,” also boasting that he pays no fees for trash pick up since there is none.

RiCOH Electronics, Inc, maker of office automation equipment, illustrates ZW applied within an international giant. Seven of its nine North American facilities are in Orange County. Together, they generated 6,000 tons of landfill waste in 1998.

Zero-Waste-to-Landfill with 100% resource recovery was established as a corporate mission in 1999 and proudly achieved within 2 years. The company saves over $2 million annually as a result, according company spokesperson Eiko Risch.

How’s RiCOH done it? Through company-wide culture change.

For starters, waste eradication is made integral to every employee’s job, and RiCOH uses its purchasing clout to insist that all raw materials be delivered in reusable containers and contain no hazardous substances the company has banned. Disassembly of used products, like copier machines, to capture reusable parts has also been key. Thermal recycling, the conversion of waste to energy through incineration, is still used as a last resort, although the company is aiming to reduce this from 12% to 8% of waste in 2008.

These exemplary businesses show there is no one path to ZW. Rather, ZW is a process, a mindset and, for sake of future generations, a necessity.

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