Going Back to Move Forward

By adopting zero waste systems, cities can redress historic injustices and cool the climate.

WASTE IS A GROWING PROBLEM FOR CITIES around the world as production and consumption soars, impacting municipal budgets, public health, and our climate. While the circular economy — the idea that economic growth need not be synonymous with environmental degradation — is presented to the world as an innovative solution to our growing waste crisis, the idea isn’t new. Despite being colonized, many Indigenous peoples across the world continue to practice their ancestral closed-loop, regenerative systems of agriculture, fishing, hunting, and medicine-making. They represent 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet protect 80 percent of global biodiversity. .

The materials economy — that is, raw material extraction, processing, and the manufacture of goods that underpin lifestyles in most cities around the world — accounts for 62 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As the global community recognizes that we need to pivot dramatically from this extractive and wasteful economic system, we have much to learn from pre-capitalist, Indigenous, and community-driven societies about how to move towards a more circular, zero waste economy.

Cities are both the epicenter of our consumption problem and have the most potential to solve it. The good news is that the solutions are out there, and cities around the world are moving towards zero waste.

To build zerowaste cities, we need to start by asking: Where does all our waste go, and who bears the burden?

Zero waste is a comprehensive waste management approach that prioritizes waste reduction and material recovery over disposal through reuse, repair, recycling, composting, etc. By minimizing waste to landfills, incinerators, and open dumping, zero waste is one of the fastest and most affordable ways to cut climate emissions while creating good jobs, revitalizing local economies, and protecting the environment and public health.

A group of women in the Philippines sort plastic waste. Across the Asia Pacific region, local businesses and communities are both reclaiming the sustainable packaging of their heritage and coming up with innovative new ways to deliver goods without single-use packaging. Rommel Cabrera/GAIA.

Potrero, the largest neighborhood in Malabon City, the Philippines, adopted a zero waste system in 2015 to address the city’s water-logging issues. Photo by Sherma Benos / GAIA.

Recycle Here! Detroit’s only public recycling drop off center for individuals was created in 2007 to mitigate citywide lack of access to curbside recycling services. With curbside recycling services growing in Detroit since 2015, the center still bridges major access gaps in the city. Photo by Cat Diggs/GAIA.

To build zero waste cities, we need to start by asking: Where does all our waste go and who bears the burden? Incinerators, landfills, and hazardous waste plants are disproportionately sited in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income communities, both in the United States and abroad. It is imperative that those communities most impacted by our current “take-make-waste economies” — who are often subsequently the most active, vocal, and innovative in advocating for zero waste systems — be at the forefront of helping build much needed alternatives. If waste and climate change are manifestations of systemic imbalance and injustice, zero waste strategies, like the ones we have highlighted here, can both stabilize our climate and create much-needed equity both nationally and across the world.

WHILE THE URGENT NEED TO CUT CARBON dioxide emissions is well known, a lesser known, but even more potent greenhouse gas is now getting the spotlight: methane. The waste sector is the third largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions worldwide, contributing roughly 20 percent of all such emissions, primarily through the landfilling of organic waste like food scraps and yard debris.

Fortunately, methane emissions from organic waste are 100 percent preventable, and we already have the technology to put solutions into practice cheaply and efficiently. Most importantly, we must prevent food waste from happening in the first place. In the US, an astonishing 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted every year, according to the USDA, despite the fact that 10.5 percent (13.8 million) of US households are food insecure. By developing more robust food waste prevention strategies like local food systems, food donation sites, and right-sized retail food purchasing, we can help mitigate both climate change and hunger.

Another key strategy is an age-old practice developed by Indigenous peoples and ancestral communities and utilized around the world: composting! By separating and composting our organic discards, we can reduce solid waste methane emissions by 78 percent by 2030. There are myriad co-benefits of composting our organic waste: Soil enriched with compost increases crop yields (outperforming industrial fertilizers), helps draw down carbon into the soil, absorbs and detoxifies flood waters, and prevents the spread of vermin-related disease.

It costs five times more to incinerate waste than to recycle or compost it.

Lacking institutional support, BIPOC and frontline communities are often at the cutting edge of creating solutions to the problem of organic waste. Take Pashon Murray’s internationally renowned Detroit Dirt, a local composting and organic-material recovery company, founded in 2010. For decades, Detroiters have been confronted day-to-day with countless environmental injustices, including lack of access to healthy foods, transportation, and green space; poor air quality from concentrated freeways and industrial sites; power and water shutoffs; an aging housing stock; inequitable access to city-wide waste diversion services; and the list goes on. Many initiatives, like Murray’s, have fought tooth and nail to remedy the situation. Her company has, over the years, built partnerships with large institutions — like Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Detroit Zoo, and General Motors — to collect their food and organic waste in order to turn it into healthy compost that then gets redistributed throughout the community in a closed loop system. Through its education initiatives, neighborhood beautification and blight removal projects, as well as its job creation efforts, Detroit Dirt serves to revitalize and decarbonize the city through zero waste.

IF PLASTIC’S LIFE CYCLE WERE A COUNTRY, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. Like the impacts of climate change, plastic pollution disproportionately burdens low-income and BIPOC communities, whose backyards and neighborhoods are used as the sites to develop extraction, manufacturing, and disposal facilities. High-income countries, particularly in the Global North, have long been pushing their plastic pollution problem onto lower-income countries in the Global South under the guise of “recycling,” a practice that activists have termed “waste colonialism.”

Unfortunately, unless significant action is taken, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. Plastic is set to comprise 45 percent of the growth for oil and gas mining from 2018 to 2040. Without change, by 2100, plastics’ cumulative emissions would exceed well over half of the carbon budget.

Once again, the communities most burdened by plastic pollution are creating leading solutions to this crisis. Over 50 countries in the African continent have enacted plastic-reduction policies, including single-use plastic bans and fees. Across the Asia Pacific region, local businesses and communities are both reclaiming the sustainable packaging of their heritage and coming up with innovative new ways to deliver goods without single-use packaging. And through inclusive zero waste initiatives, like separate waste collection and recycling, cities are finding unexpected benefits. For example, in the densely populated neighborhood of Potrero in Malabon City, in the Philippines, which is prone to flooding, the waterways and drainage systems used to be clogged with plastic waste. This worsened their water-logging issues and heightened their risk of exposure to vermin-borne diseases. In 2015, Potrero adopted a holistic zero waste system. This included training opportunities on waste management and diversion practices such as recycling and sorting, as well as adding a strict requirement for households to separate different types of waste in their homes. Seven years later, Potrero residents are better equipped to deal with floodwaters now that their drains are no longer filled with plastic pollution.

WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT is also good for the economy. The reverse is also true: It costs five times more to incinerate waste than to recycle or compost it. Study after study has shown that incinerators not only produce the dirtiest forms of energy on the grid, but are also linked to increased asthma and respiratory disease rates for the communities in which they are housed. Zero waste strategies, on the other hand, score highest in terms of environmental benefits and, our research shows, create up to 200 times more jobs than disposal systems. Repair, redistribution, material recovery, sorting, and remanufacturing jobs also tend to be better jobs than those in traditional waste management, providing higher wages, more permanent positions, and improved quality of life. Not only that, but the financial gains for local economies are palpable: On average, zero waste systems save cities upwards of 70 percent in avoided waste management costs.

Much work remains to ensure that we transform the imbalanced systems in which we operate. Waste pickers and workers are essential players in our global recycling and waste diversion economies, and yet they find themselves to be some of the most at risk and poorly treated laborers in the world. For instance, informal waste pickers collect over 90 percent of the waste recycled from households in South Africa.. We are undeniably indebted to these communities, which are finally starting to be internationally recognized as global leaders in our zero waste movements. Inclusion of informal recyclers in zero waste systems results in cost-savings, healthier environments, and greater economic justice. SWaCH, India’s first cooperatively-owned waste-picker enterprise, and the South African Waste Pickers Association (SAWPA), whose mission is to promote the rights of waste pickers in South Africa, provide inspiring examples of the power-building potential waste pickers have when they join forces.

WE ARE AT A CRITICAL JUNCTURE in history, one in which we are presented with a unique opportunity to work collectively toward transforming our systems in order to build a safer, more just, and equitable world for current and future generations. While still grappling with the ripple effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the worsening climate catastrophe, and numerous other crises, we must push past any mainstream desire to “go back to normal,” a normal that was destructive to most humans and nonhumans on Earth. We must strive to go beyond recovery, and move towards a future where zero waste practices are universally adopted as key solutions that will help our planet return to a life-sustaining pathway, where nothing and no one is treated as disposable.

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