Local Action is the Foundation of a Zero Waste Future

San Francisco community

If nothing else, read this…

Anyone who works to implement Zero Waste programs that protect human health would love to see those systems adopted at the federal and state level. But that’s not always realistic; often because the scope is too big, federal and state politics are stacked against change, or self-interested corporations use their power to interfere. So, cities, towns, and counties across the country have taken it on themselves to pass cutting edge Zero Waste ordinances. In doing so, local governments are proving that these programs protect health and the environment, save money, and create local jobs. While federal and state campaigns remain important, we can’t overlook local action!

Change at the National and State Level Can Be Slow

Draft national waste policies – including composting and labeling reform – often don’t go far enough, or they lack teeth. Strong bills, like the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and modern state Bottle Bills, are slow to pass – if they pass at all. And many of the state bills that have moved, like Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging in California, Colorado, and Oregon, don’t contain provisions to significantly reduce plastic or other single-use packaging. In fact, some of these bills include loopholes to allow for so-called “advanced recycling” – plastic burning technologies, like pyrolysis or gasification – to count as “recycling.”

All of that to say, big Zero Waste wins at the federal and state level are few and far between. And with weak legislation that allows for loopholes like “advanced recycling,” some of the laws being passed may actually being doing more harm than good.

Proof of Concept – Seeing is Believing

In our democracy, state and local governments are the laboratories for new policies. It’s local action that leads to bigger and better laws being passed at the state and federal level down the road. Never has that been truer than with Zero Waste policies and programs.

Local governments were the first to ban plastic grocery bags and plastic foodware in the United States. They were also the first to mandate reusable cutlery and foodware in dining establishments. Just look at California. Communities in San Francisco were the first in the state to ban plastic grocery bags. It wasn’t until later (2014 to be exact) that California passed a statewide plastic bag ban. However, the state law contains a loophole that allows thicker plastic bags to still be used. But thanks to learnings from local bag ban ordinances that have been passed and developed in California, the state is currently considering legislation that would eliminate that loophole. Basically, local governments figure out how to do it best, and States can emulate their success.

Small businesses can serve the same function. Compost haulers and processors like O-Town Compost in Florida, Bootstrap Compost in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, and NOPE Compost Co. in Virginia, often start with a subscription model. When residents see how much of their trash can be composted (rather than landfilled or incinerated), they get hooked. These loyal customers become the grassroots advocates who support local and regional laws to institutionalize food scrap diversion programs. These programs then spur more infrastructure growth and more service providers – with larger cities (Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, for example) implementing food scrap collection. And all because of the example set by the local trailblazers that came before them.

The Local Laboratories at Work

Washington DC – Back to Basics with a Modern Bottle Bill

Many people in Washington, DC still remember returning their empty, glass soda bottles to the store. But that was when companies, like Coca-Cola, relied on refillable bottles – and wanted those bottles back. Now, a coalition of grassroots groups called 3RC for DC is working to pass a modern Bottle Bill in the District. Residents are sick of the litter in their parks, rivers, and roadways. They are sick of high trash and recycling costs. And they would like to see new jobs in recycling, and eventually, in beverage refill systems.

As always, a Bottle Bill is only a good idea if it is easy and convenient for people to return their empty containers. Given that some DC neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores, this means getting creative when it comes to bottle return locations. Stores that sell beverages must take back empty containers for the system to work, but places of worship and apartment complexes might also be part of the solution.

Passing a modern Bottle Bill in Washington, DC would also educate legislators and their aides from across the country – and once you get used to returning your bottles and cans, you never want to go back!

Commonwealth of Virginia – Giving Local Government the Power to Compost Food Scraps

In some states, local governments (cities, towns, and counties) have the power to pass ordinances – so long as it doesn’t conflict with state law. In other places, like Virginia, local governments must be granted the power to do so. Virginia’s state legislature recently passed a new law that would have given cities, towns, and counties the authority to ban commercial food scraps from the trash. But the bill still had to make its way past the Governor. And unfortunately, he vetoed the bill. So, supermarkets and convenience stores are not yet required to separate food scraps from other household trash. But this kind of bill opens the door for local, Zero Waste action.

New York City – Composting Food in the Big Apple

Many waste companies across the country are pushing a business model in which they collect food scraps and process them with sewage sludge in anaerobic digesters. New York City included. This is unacceptable. Not only does this process come with exorbitant fees for processing organic waste, but it also results in more toxic waste – rather than becoming a clean additive for our soil. But if New York City were to invest in real composting infrastructure, it could create a sustainable and cost-efficient transformation for the City and its residents.

Trailblazers of the Zero Waste Movement

Just Zero learns from local activists every day. We work their ideas into the bills and policy recommendations that we share across the country. These learnings allow us to help other communities in avoiding some the pitfalls and corporate red herrings we’ve seen in other cities, towns, and counties across the country.

Let us know what your community is up to, so we can learn from you, too! And as always, please support our work. There is so much to do, at the federal, state, and local level. And we can’t do it without your help.

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