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The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as of 2013, Americans only recycled about 35 percent of the municipal solid waste generated. Some forward-thinking U.S. cities, with both pressure and encouragement from constituents, advocacy groups and businesses alike, are looking to take their municipal solid waste diversion efforts to the next level by adopting “zero waste” goals.

Zero waste – race to the bottom

The most obvious argument for cities to increase recycling and waste diversion efforts is the reduction of negative environmental impacts like climate change, air pollution and the wasting of precious resources. But the economic argument for going “zero waste” is one that isn’t being overlooked, as city governments, who may be struggling with restrictive budgets, are beginning to recognize the financial benefits.

For instance, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) estimates that increasing the national waste diversion rate to up to 75 percent would add 1.5 million jobs to the economy. ILSR also notes,

“the institutional framework and know-how exists to cost effectively reuse, recycle, or compost 90 percent of the estimated 480 million tons of municipal solid waste and construction and demolition debris generated in the U.S. annually.”

In other words, we have the tools to recapture the vast majority of stuff Americans are sending to our landfills – junk that actually has value and could be given a second life.

Triple bottom line

Going “zero waste” improves a city’s triple bottom line, with social, environmental and financial advantages, including green job creation, a bigger market for reusable materials that spurs local businesses, increased air and water quality, plus a host of other environmental improvements for residents.

Cities attempting to set a zero waste plan into motion have inevitably run into legislative roadblocks, business contract disputes or pushback from locals who don’t want to upset the status quo. But the pros appear to far outweigh any upfront cons, and each city has to determine how to go about achieving zero waste in a way that makes the most sense for that particular community and its residents.

As Jared Blumenfeld, former head of San Francisco’s department of the environment, told the Guardian, “People said we were crazy.” But the data told them otherwise. Now, San Francisco has already achieved 80 percent landfill diversion, bringing them positive attention on the national stage for their innovative and ambitious waste initiatives.

Is zero really zero?

To be clear, the term “zero waste” isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.  Most cities that have set a zero waste goal have done so using the Zero Waste International Alliance as guidance, an organization which recognizes communities that “are working towards or have reduced their waste to landfill, incineration and the environment by 90% or more.”

Pioneering states that have multiple cities under their belt with zero waste plans, all seem to be clumped out west, particularly California, Colorado and Texas.

Downtown Los Angeles
Los Angeles is one of several California cities looking to achieve zero waste. Image Credit – Christopher Chan (Flickr)


  • San Francisco was the biggest U.S. city to make a zero waste pledge in 2002. Part of the city’s success in fast approaching its 100 percent landfill diversion by 2020 goal, has been in creating legislation such as mandatory composting for residents and collaborating with local businesses to encourage involvement in recycling efforts.
  • Berkeley set up one of the very first municipal recycling programs in the country in the early 1970s, so creating its Zero Waste Program in 2005 was a no-brainer for City Council. Not only did the city ban the use of plastic bags, but it has also expanded recycling to include all plastic containers.
  • Los AngelesSolid Waste Integrated Resources Plan (SWIRP) provides a 20 year master plan for the city’s municipal solid waste. It’s closely tied to the Department of Sanitation’s franchise zone zero waste system proposed in 2014, which plans to augment landfill diversion for commercial real estate and multi-family apartments.
  • Oakland City Council passed a Zero Waste Resolution in 2006 to adopt a strategic plan to be implemented by 2020.
  • San Diego’s Zero Waste Plan seeks to divert 75 percent of waste by 2020, 90 percent in 2035 and 100 percent by 2040.
Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado
Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado who also is striving for zero waste. Image Credit – Let Ideas Compete (Flickr)


  • Fort Collins instituted a Road to Zero Waste Plan in 2013 after reaching its 50 percent waste diversion goal established in 1999 (an early trend setter), with a target of reaching 75 percent by 2020, 90 percent by 2025 and zero waste by 2030. Three program components have been building a commercial composting facility, a recycling plant to accommodate construction and demolition materials and a warehouse for the sale of reusable products.
  • Boulder County Commissioner passed the Universal Zero Waste Ordinance in 2005, striving for 85 percent waste diversion by 2025. The city hopes to accomplish this by expanding recycling and composting options for all residents and businesses, as well as upgrading the County Recycling Center to accept more types of materials.
Downtown Dallas
Dallas is one of three Texas cities striving towards zero waste. Image Credit – Adam Simmons (Flickr)


  • Austin launched its Resource Recovery Master Plan in 2011, promising to realize 90 percent less waste by 2040. Part of its plan to achieve this is requiring all commercial properties to offer recycling facilities by 2017 and food services to divert organic materials by 2018.
  • Dallas City Council established a Local Solid Waste Management Plan in 2013, with incremental goals to reach 40 percent landfill diversion by 2020, 60 percent by 2030 and zero waste by 2040.
  • San Antonio has a less ambitious zero waste plan that its Texan city counterparts, shooting for a 60 percent solid waste recycling rate by 2025.

Other Zero Waste Trailblazers

Encouragingly, several other cities and small towns have legislation or proposals in the works for designing plans that will increase municipal solid waste diversion. While all can’t be listed here, we’ve highlighted a few additional zero waste catalysts that have made significant commitments for other cities to aspire to.

Carrboro, North Carolina was an early adopter, passing a Zero Waste Resolution back in 1998. Some helpful steps were committing to single stream recycling, making it easier and simpler for residents to recycle and banning e-waste at landfills.

Kaua’i, Hawaii City Council voted in favor of the Zero Waste Resolution in 2011, which put the city on a track to try and reach 70 percent waste diversion by 2013. Kaua’i has received help from a local volunteer organization, Zero Waste Kauai, established in 2006 to help raise public awareness of the issue with local residents and policymakers.

Minneapolis, Minnesota City Council set goals in 2015 to divert 50 percent of its waste by 2020 and 80 percent by 2030, introducing a resolution to develop a zero waste plan that will be considered in Spring of next year.

New York City is determined to reduce 90 percent of city waste by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. This came about as part of Mayor de Blasio’s One New York sustainability plan. Not only has the city banned single use polystyrene foam, but it also plans to expand organic curbside pickup opportunities for all residents.

Seattle, Washington passed its Zero Waste Resolution passed in 2007 with the aspiration to reach 72 percent waste diversion by 2025. A major tactic was to place a citywide ban on food waste, requiring food composting for single-family homes.

Washington D.C. passed the Sustainable Solid Waste Management Amendment Act, calling for the city to create a zero waste plan to meet its stated goal of 80 percent waste diversion. City Council also banned the use of styrofoam by food service businesses, which goes into effect this month.

Zero waste takes the participation of multiple parties.  And while these cities haven’t quite reached zero waste status, they are leading the way.

Feature image courtesy of peasap (Flickr

By Lesley Lammers

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.