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What a Dump!: California's goal is to someday have zero waste.

Zero Tolerance

From rethinking recycling to reconsidering our relationship to trash, the zero-waste movement challenges conventional wisdom

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

A guaranteed conversation-stopper, the topic--and indeed, the reality--of garbage is not going to go away any time soon. Moreover, there are a number of widely held public assumptions that impede progress toward that elusive goal which garbologists refer to as "zero waste."

Assumption one: Garbage is one of those facts of life that falls in with other inevitabilities like death and taxes. Human beings are a consumptive lot, and the byproducts of all that consumption have to go somewhere.

Assumption two: Garbage companies do us all a great service by whisking away the nasty byproducts of our lives and hauling them off to those big holes in the ground euphemistically referred to as "landfills."

Assumption three: Recycling is enough.

After all, it's good for the bottle, it's good for the can. Well, not exactly.

Members of a growing movement of garbage activists--environmental consultants, members of solid waste task forces, those who oversee the flow of garbage and a few concerned ordinary citizens--are pushing the zero-waste agenda in both the public and political arenas. They ask nothing less of us than to reexamine our assumptions about garbage--before it buries us alive.

In fact, zero waste is one of California's latest goals. The state's Integrated Waste Management Board believes we must "redefine the concept of waste in our society. In the past, waste was considered a natural byproduct of our culture. Now, it is time to recognize that proper resource management, not waste management, is at the heart of reducing waste sent to landfills."

Does Garbage Exist?

Paul Palmer is the author of the book Getting to Zero Waste, having coined the phrase in the '80s. Possessing a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale, Palmer ran a chemical recycling business called Zero Waste Systems for 10 years in Berkeley before becoming the movement's greatest proponent.

"You talk to people, and they'll tell you that garbage has always been and always will be," Palmer explains by telephone from his Sebastopol home. "How do they know that? There's no scientific analysis that says this, they just have a gut feeling, because the garbage industry is so powerful. The definition of garbage is something that has no owner, and is unwanted by someone. By EPA standards, once something becomes a waste, it can never be used again. That means if I throw away a drum of perfectly good chemical solvent, it becomes waste."

The public's acceptance of garbage is a form of brainwashing by a multibillion-dollar industry with a powerful lobby, Palmer says, because we don't want to have to think about our waste.

"Garbage companies are little more than truckers driving material to holes in the ground and burying it," he insists. "If you had to build a system today from scratch where excess commodities had to be dealt with, no intelligent person would come up with the idea of digging a hole in the ground and dumping it. We have a social condition that is insane.

"Why do we continue to do it?" he asks rhetorically. "Because there is an industry that has learned to make money at it, and it has conditioned us to accept it."

Money Pits

Waste Management Inc. is a global corporation that earns $10 billion annually and owns over 300 landfills nationwide, including the Redwood Landfill in Novato. According to a report posted online by the watchdog organization Corporate Accountability International, "Waste Management, Inc., exerts enormous influence at every level of government, including federal agencies such as the EPA."

In 1996, Waste Management had at least 197 lobbyists in 40 states and 34 at the federal level. The corporation has been accused by the San Diego district attorney of "practices designed to gain influence over government officials," and has paid millions of dollars in fines for violations and class action lawsuit settlements around the country for charges ranging from contamination to fraud.

There are two kinds of landfill operations: publicly owned and privately owned. Redwood Landfill is private. Dumps generate income by collecting a payment known as a "tipping fee" for every load of garbage dropped at their site, a term derived literally from the idea that a dump truck tips as it off-loads.

Redwood Landfill charges a tipping fee of $44 per ton. In 2004, the dump took in a reported 359,000 tons of trash and nearly $16 million in revenue. Since it is privately owned, Redwood only has to concern itself with dump operations. The county of Marin pays for hauling and any additional services. Neither Redwood nor Waste Management Inc. responded to repeated phone calls from the Bohemian to comment on this story.

In contrast, Sonoma County's public landfill, Sonoma Central, is owned and operated by the county, and all fees must be approved by the board of supervisors. Central charges $42 per ton, and took in approximately 385,000 tons of refuse in 2004. According to Ken Wells, the integrated waste manager for Sonoma County, the public dump's income is spent monitoring garbage stored around the county; maintaining the system of transfer stations used to move garbage from one location to another; educating the public; and on various other expenditures.

"The public-sector model, which we follow, says that the landfill is a resource owned by the community to be conserved and to last as long as possible," he says by phone from his Santa Rosa office. "The private perspective is that the landfill is a profit center, and they want to maximize the profit out of their investment by filling it up as fast as possible and building another one. I sometimes doubt how truly the privately owned landfills believe in waste-reduction rules."

Redwood, which borders the Petaluma River on one side, is expected to fill up by 2019, if it does not expand beyond its present boundaries. However, environmentalists, Novato residents and the Novato City Council have contested the proposed expansion, which would increase the dump's capacity by 50 percent and extend its life to 2037. The dump's environmental impact report process is currently in its second revision.

Cynthia Barnard, an environmental health specialist with Marin County Environmental Health Services, which issues permits for landfill expansions in concurrence with the state's waste-management board, believes environmental groups tend to paint the Redwood Landfill negatively in order to support their own agenda. Still, she admits that, compared to the public model, the privately owned dump is "a different world" in terms of operation. "We work with the landfill, but we're not in their think tank; they're not running ideas by us beforehand," she says.

Meanwhile, the publicly owned Sonoma Central Landfill is also filling up, and will begin diverting a good portion of its waste to Redwood beginning this September. Last summer, midway through Sonoma Central's second phase of site expansion, groundwater contamination was discovered below the dump's liner.

Though the contaminated water was not discharged to any drinking-water supplies and the problem was corrected, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board decided to halt the expansion, leaving Sonoma Central in a bind. By the time the water board reviews the corrections and approves further expansion, Sonoma Central will have exceeded its current capacity.

Immediate action was necessary. After studying the options, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted to ship waste to Vallejo's Potrero Hills Landfill and to Redwood for the next three to five years. The decision has met with mixed response.

"There are a number of people who feel that shipping our garbage out of county is putting the responsibility on other counties," says waste management consultant Portia Sinnott, a member of the Sonoma County task force on solid waste. "Sonoma has one of the best landfills in California--it's state-of-the-art. Exporting out of county doesn't guarantee that the landfills we'll be using are any better. All landfills have problems; it is an inexact science. Even the EPA acknowledges this."

Wells agrees that shipping out of county is not the ideal choice, but says that there was neither time nor money to pursue other options, such as increasing mandatory recycling levels to 70 percent, diverting construction and demolition debris from entering the landfill, or even enacting bans on creating new landfills in the county.

"We have a policy that says we'll take care of our own garbage, and the board's decision clearly works against that attitude," says Wells. "I'm disappointed that we got to this point and couldn't negotiate with the water board for expansion sooner. Even more important to some people is the $15 million we'll be paying out of county each year we ship our waste out."

But he adds, "I want to be clear that we will be going ahead with the expansion eventually."

Even though Redwood promotes recycling, there is concern in the zero-waste camp that corporate-owned dumps whose parent companies have lobbyists in Washington have less incentive to reduce waste than public landfills.

"They do what they have to, but they aren't working creatively on waste-management solutions," Wells says.

Still, on the long road toward zero waste, whether a dump is public or private may matter less than cultural attitudes toward garbage. Paul Palmer notes that the term "landfill" appeared out of the PR ether in the last 20 years, replacing the more repulsive but realistic "dump." And as long as the public sees weekly garbage pick-up as a right, and a convenient one at that, changes may be slow to come.

Radical Refuse

In Palmer's ideal model, dumps would be shut down and all garbage-hauling companies put out of business, forcing society and individuals to come up with creative solutions to waste problems. At the same time, he fears that society has become so reliant on the garbage industry that expecting radical change may be unrealistic. He feels the problem needs to be addressed at the manufacturing level, beginning with design. Palmer envisions large filling stations with thousands of spigots or bins, like a large grocery store minus all the packaging. Consumers would bring their own packages and simply refill them.

"The most important thing about any commodity is its function, not the material it's composed of," he says. "So you want to reuse the function of the bottle by refilling it."

Like Palmer, Ken Wells feels that the United States could make great strides in waste reduction by relying less on dumps, and holding manufacturers responsible for the waste that their products create.

"Unfortunately, we're a consuming society where the people with the big bucks are writing the laws," Wells says. "One of the problems is something known as 'externalities.' For instance, you may remember those little shoes for kids with lights in them. The first year they were made, they contained mercury-based batteries. When those shoes were [discarded], they were hazardous waste. But what did the manufacturer have to pay for dealing with that waste? Zero. The manufacturer externalized the cost of disposing of this product on to the public. The solid-waste industry was left holding the bag. In Europe and Canada, manufacturers don't get away with that. They're responsible for the entire process."

Reaching this state of responsibility requires legislation that would encourage manufacturers, through the use of economic penalties and incentives, to design responsible products. But because the garbage lobby exerts such tremendous influence over local, state and federal legislatures, Well avers that it will actually "take campaign finance reform" to effect real change.

Reduce Reuse Rethink

Wells and other garbage activists are hopeful that public-information campaigns will help produce a shift in attitudes on behalf of the public, politicians and industry. Reaching zero waste means rethinking everything, even in such areas as recycling, where the public has only been coaxed aboard relatively recently.

It's not that recycling doesn't make a difference; it does--a big difference. Wells points out that in Sonoma County, only 15 percent of the waste stream was recycled in 1990. By 2003, 55 percent was recycled. But 55 percent is not enough. The California Integrated Waste Management Board recently upped its recycling-rate target to 75 percent, aiming in the long term to reach 100 percent.

However, it may be difficult to motivate the public to recycle more than it currently is, according to Portia Sinnott. In fact, Sinnott believes that recycling as it currently exists may not bring us any closer to zero waste, because by the time a person recycles a bottle or can, it's only one step away from being garbage.

"Recycling and zero waste are not the same things," she says. "Recycling is a form of managing discards at the tail end of the process. In some cases, people feel more comfortable consuming more simply because they recycle."

The next step up from recycling is reuse, which means investing in commodities that are reusable--and then actually convincing people to reuse them. Paul Palmer helps make the distinction. "What we know as recycling is the lowest possible form of reuse," he says. "Recycling means you create a waste and then, at the last minute, when you have no other choice, you try to find a new home for it in its degraded condition. When you break a bottle, you lose 98 percent of its value because all you've got now is broken glass; you throw away all the resources that went into making it, the labor and time and money." He suggests that we stop manufacturing products that lend themselves to easy disposal and treat such commodities differently, so that a glass bottle gets reused long before it ever gets smashed.

"Another thing we've got to do is make products much more repairable," he adds. "One of the specific recommendations I make in my book is to offer the blueprints of products on the Internet so that people can fix things themselves. Information is key.

"Right now there is no infrastructure for taking responsibility," he continues. "Everyone has just glommed on to the scheme, the 'out' of throwing stuff away. 'I don't care' is the essence of an irresponsible society."

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes sustainable communities, encourages grassroots groups to petition local governments for "extended producer responsibility" legislation that will hold manufacturers legally responsible for the disposal of their products.

In the meantime, Wells says that Sonoma County will continue to work on educating the public. "Generally people want to do the right thing, and more often than not, if you give them the information and the opportunity, they will," he says. "As for the business sector, it pretty much comes down to the bottom line. Save them money, and they'll do the right thing."

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From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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