GROGAN on Zero Waste.2
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:22:40 -0500

Today's Blue Light Special: Landfills

Pete Grogan BioCycle, November 1995

Far fetched? Perhaps, but it's time we realize that the "blue light"
special on landfilling won't last forever. Wake up America, landfilling
society's discardables is not a viable strategy for the future.

Landfilling is a prehistoric method of managing materials, yet we
refuse to cut the cord that binds us to this hole digging, waste burying
legacy. Special interest groups tell us that the alternatives to landfilling
are too expensive and don't measure up. Somehow they are able to
overlook the hidden "costs," such as damage to the environment and
the foolish waste of resources.

Despite our landfill dependence, the 1980s and 1990s have seen a
steady slide toward a "let's reduce waste" mentality (meaning of
course, "let's landfill less"). Most state governments have established
waste reduction goals ranging from 25 to 50 percent. Many of those
goals are targeted for the year 2000 and beyond.

One wonders how real these targets are, not because a 50 percent
waste reduction goal is unattainable--many local governments have
already proven otherwise--but because many states are not developing
the infrastructure necessary to deliver the desired results. Also, in most
cases there is no "hammer"--no mode of enforcement to hold local
governments accountable for their portion of the waste reduction
pledge. Many communities that are meeting or surpassing their goals
say it was a friendly, yet effective, push from state lawmakers that got
them moving.

My concern is that December 31, 1999, will come and go like any
other day without a thought to all that could have, or should have,
been done before the clock strikes midnight. It's likely some states will
achieve their goals, but many more will come up short or not bother at

Unfortunately, I anticipate no federal leadership on this issue. I do
not expect the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to be
reauthorized in this decade, except maybe in a "lite" form. As a result,
waste minimization is steadily becoming an agenda item best suited
for state and local governments. This is clearly the level where
leadership will be reestablished and footing regained.

I realize that this is no simple task given the massive behavioral
social changes necessary, the volatile end use markets, and the
recycling infrastructures that are often tested and developed at the
same time. And while we've come a long way, we've only run half the
race and the roughest stretch is yet to come. In other words, many
states are so busy focusing on the 50 percent goals--patting themselves
on the back for tackling such a formidable level--that they say "let's see
if we can achieve it, and worry about the other 50 percent later."

Well guess what? Later is now. Because of the long timelines inherent
to the bureaucratic planning process, it is not too early to begin
mapping out recycling, composting and minimization strategies for the
first decade of the new century. As always, I believe the new goals
should encompass recovery maximization and disposal minimization--
not to mention the ultimate goal of eliminating landfilling as we know

This means continued work on product design to assure recyclability.
In recent years, tremendous attention has been given to the products
that move through our lives in a matter of minutes or days, but very
little attention has been given to the recyclability of durable products
beyond metals. The exceptions are a few nations that have set up
infrastructures for the disassembly of cars and buildings (and who are
reaping the rewards).

We also should set a goal of zero waste. This may sound too
futuristic, but just five short years ago many people would have
thought that a 50 percent waste reduction goal was laughable. Besides,
zero waste certainly seems like a more down to earth goal than
putting a person on the moon may have seemed to our grandparents.
And yes, I will grant that there are still some products in the municipal
waste stream that are too contaminated for recovery, but these also
represent an entrepreneurial opportunity.

So, it is time for progressive cities and states to work in concert to
develop their "beyond 50 percent" strategies. This teamwork will
require a fire in the bellies and the minds of the appropriate players,
and nothing less than serious dedication. And as always, there will be
the naysayers who will keep it lively.

Peter Grogan is the manager of Market Development for
Weyerhaeuser Recycling in Tacoma, Washington. The opinions
expressed here are his own.