Ten Tips for Going Zero Waste

November 15, 2018 - (7 min read)

This is an excerpt from NLC’s new recycling guide, Recycling Reimagined.

The health of our citizens and the safety of our environment depend on sustainable waste management systems. Cities should feel empowered to improve diversion rates and reduce waste. Examining your waste and recycling system can jumpstart local circular economies.

A linear economy’s model is “take, make, waste.” A circular economy connects the two ends of the cycle, using waste as a feedstock for production.

Pushing toward a circular economy would generate real benefits for workers and the environment. Doubling our diversion rate from 34% to 75% by 2030 could create 1.1 million jobs and reduce 276 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equal to shutting down 72 coal power plants or removing 50 million cars from the road.

Zero waste, or using waste from one process as a resource for others, and separating material consumption from economic growth will preserve resources, create jobs, add economic value, minimize waste and curb greenhouse emissions.

Examining our waste and recycling systems is an easy way to jumpstart local circular economies – and this, in turn, can help streamline municipal waste management systems to maximize waste diversion and use waste as a resource instead of a burden.

Get to Know Your Waste

Waste characterization or composition studies identify what kinds of materials end up in the landfill. They can also be used to determine the material composition of other streams, such as single-stream recycling. Knowing the most common materials in the waste stream helps to focus first on the low-hanging fruit and prioritize specific programs and services. For example, if a large percentage of materials currently landfilled could be diverted to other streams, such as recycling or composting, consider launching new services, expanding existing programs or enhancing education efforts for established streams.

Educate Key Stakeholders

A move towards zero waste and a circular economy will require a significant cultural shift in how we think about consumption and the end life of the products, materials and resources we use. Education efforts should involve stakeholder engagement, public outreach and marketing campaigns, and they should also include praise for correct waste diversion at the individual level and recognition for innovative practices at the organizational level. Manufacturers and product designers can use the packaging itself to educate consumers on what to do with the items after use.

Incentivize the Waste Hierarchy

Circular economy principles should prioritize the highest and best use of materials and resources, establishing a waste hierarchy to guide actions. Use the hierarchy as a stepladder to improve strategically.

Landfills should only serve as a last result. Your city might begin diverting waste by incinerating trash to generate energy, if it is safe to do so. Recycling and composting materials at the end of their life can be improved through education or mandatory curbside programs. Specific waste streams such as construction debris or textiles offer excellent opportunities to reuse, refurbish or remanufacture products.

graphic on waste hierarchy

Streamline Regulations and Standards

Creating clear and consistent expectations is vital to success. Examine your local system holistically and seek to simplify and create consistent and equitable standards. Consider instituting a universal ordinance that guarantees access to the same recycling and composting programs for single-family, multi-family and commercial sectors. Pay particular attention to the relationship of tenants to their landlords or property owners in all sectors to protect against possible policy loopholes. Standardize waste diversion options in public spaces, so that waste diversion are the same wherever residents go in their daily lives.

Be a Sustainable Purchasing Champion

Increasing the supply of recyclable materials is only half the battle. Cities also have the procurement power to boost demand for sustainable products. Strive to purchase items with a minimum recycled material content and that are fully recyclable in the current local system. Natural products should be tested and certified as fully compostable in municipal systems through third-party certifications such as BPI Certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute. Minimize single-use products and embrace single-material products that are most easily recyclable and compostable. Many cleaning products such as soaps and detergents are available in natural and biodegradable formulas that have minimal impact on municipal drinking water quality and treatment.

Pursue New Partnerships

No single stakeholder will be able to change the system and culture of waste alone. Governments should strive to build partnerships between departments and leverage outside resources. Economic development, public works, environmental services and others should develop shared goals. Businesses that generate waste and manufacturers who need materials should be convened to identify opportunities. Businesses that generate waste and manufacturers who need materials should convene to identify opportunities.

Build Regional Support

Partnerships among local governments are particularly important to achieve economy and viability of scale for systems and infrastructure, as well as to better coordinate and streamline the current patchwork of systems and regulations. Local pilot programs are important, but many of the same haulers and processors your community relies on are shared by neighboring governments. Together, your region can build leverage to change the current system or attract new partners who share your mission.

Find Innovative Funding Models and Grants

Some cities have established separate funds that are reserved expressly for sustainable waste management and resource recovery initiatives: This may be an option as a fee that is assessed monthly or annually in conjunction with the regular fee for waste hauling services. Other cities have also made moves toward extended producer responsibility by adding fees to items that are difficult to manage within the waste and recycling system, such as plastic shopping bags.

Build Infrastructure and Improve technology

New infrastructure and technology may be necessary for sustainable materials management. The partnerships mentioned previously are key to securing the scale and funds required for high cost, but high value, infrastructure upgrades and construction, and tax incentives for capital improvement expenditures can help the process along. Investing in transfer stations, materials recovery facilities, compost facilities and eco-industrial parks will help immensely in creating a more sustainable and affordable recycling system. Any changes or additions to infrastructure and technology in the local system should align with the process and methods that will be used to collect the waste.

Pilot Programs

Does your community have the next great idea to promote the circular economy? Pilot programs allow cities and organizations to test new concepts, services or facilities in small and controlled areas with limited cost. Successful pilots will help get buy-in from government officials, potential investors and partners, members of the community and other stakeholders. Pilot programs allow for unforeseen issues to be identified and resolved before a full-scale program is launched, and they can inform the planning and preparation process for scaling up, including the specifics of costs and financing. Even unsuccessful pilots can provide valuable data concerning the economic and environmental benefits or effectiveness of a new program.

Read the full guide here at nlc.org.


Cooper-Martin-SCI-Pic-1067697050-1537968994506-2 About the Authors: Cooper Martin is the program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.




Corinne-Rico-Headshot-3994100956-1537906898502Corinne Rico is a Senior Consultant with GBB, an award-winning international solid waste management consulting firm that helps communities do better things with waste. At GBB, Corinne advances sustainable waste management and resource recovery through alternative streams including recycling, composting, and circular economy initiatives. Corinne is a former fellow with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.