is the recycling of all materials back into nature or the marketplace in a manner that protects human health and the environment.



A "Zero Waste" Plan for the Future by Lynn Landes

The United States is sinking under a "river of waste."  Zero Waste America (ZWA) estimates that in 1997, Americans will dispose of more than 1.2 billion tons of domestic and imported waste. That amounts to approximately 5 tons of waste disposed for every person in the country.* The cost to public health and natural resources is incalculable.

In 1970, Congress passed legislation establishing National Environmental Policy to "enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources."  That policy was a mandate from Congress. It should serve as a lifeboat to a sustainable environment, to no more landfills or incinerators, and to Zero Waste.

Instead, the U.S. has no effective national plan to eliminate or reduce waste. There is no government effort to create sustainable markets for recyclables. There is no national ban on the disposal of waste, compost, or recyclables into landfills or incinerators. There is no limit on the amount of waste imported from other countries. The EPA does not even track the total amount of waste that is generated, imported, or disposed in the U.S.

The free market has not provided a foundation this nation needs to reduce, eliminate, or recycle waste. Voluntary programs of waste recycling and reduction have not been sufficient to curb the ever-increasing need to build more landfills and incinerators.

Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is a good example of failed policies and enforcement by both federal and state authorities. Bucks County disposes of approximately 2,000 tons of county waste daily. Waste Management (WMX) is permitted by PA’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to dispose of 20,000 tons of waste each day in Bucks County. Federal law requires that states must have a "state solid waste management plan" to ensure maximum recycling and resource conservation, and to assess environmental impact of waste disposal facilities. Pennsylvania has no such state plan, yet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows the state to continue accepting waste and issuing permits for more disposal facilities. Currently, Pennsylvania is the leading importer of foreign and domestic waste in the nation.

Many states complain that waste imports undercut their efforts at waste reduction and recycling. For the last several years, states have looked to proposed federal legislation that promises states protection from imports. This proposed legislation will not protect states for three reasons:

The proposed legislation only applies to "unwanted" waste. A state cannot prohibit a municipality from accepting waste, if an agreement is reached between the host municipality and a waste disposal company. This invites the waste industry to "shop" for disadvantaged communities who may want the host fees to offset tax increases, or can't afford to defend themselves against well-funded waste industry legal action.

There is no limit on other types of disposal waste that can be imported from other states or nations. Only "municipal" waste will be affected by this legislation. That may account for as little as 20% of all waste disposed in a state.

This legislation will encourage the importation of more toxic waste, such as: hazardous, industrial, infectious, asbestos, sewage sludge, contaminated soil, and incinerator ash. Much of this waste is allowed in municipal landfills, as well as in private and commercial landfills and incinerators.

A Zero Waste Plan for the Future

So, what’s the answer? In the absence of Congressional action or federal enforcement of current environmental law, how do states eliminate waste and protect themselves from waste imports?

First, states can issue waste "disposal bans" for both in-state and imported waste. They can begin by banning compostables, such as food and yard waste. A general rule is that waste must be free from hazardous materials in order to be composted or recycled safely.

Second, states can legislate a variety of measures to sustain recycling markets. They can set minimum recycled content standards and establish bottle bills and other "take-back" legislation. With markets guaranteed, recyclables can be banned for disposal.

Lastly, states should store hazardous waste until it can be safely recycled. Never bury or burn waste!

In order to withstand legal challenge by waste importers, states must apply disposal bans equally to both in-state and out-of-state waste. In the City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey could protect its environment in the following statement, "And it may be assumed as well that New Jersey may pursue those ends by slowing the flow of all waste into the State's remaining landfills, even though interstate commerce may incidentally be affected." Again, in National Solid Waste Association v. Meyer (1995), Federal Court of Appeal, 7th Circuit ruled, "Accordingly, Wisconsin could realize its goals of conserving landfill space and protecting the environment by mandating that all waste entering the State first be treated at a materials recovery facility with the capacity to effect this separation." Note that the words "all waste" were used in both decisions.

As a nation, we can turn this "river of waste" into a "reservoir of recyclables." We should do whatever it takes to eliminate waste. Zero Waste is our goal. A healthy and clean environment...let that be our legacy.

* ZWA based its estimates on publicly available documents, including Biocycle Magazine’s April 1997 issue which reported 1996 data of 235 million tons of mostly "municipal" waste disposed. We calculated that, in some states, "municipal" waste accounts for as little as 20% of total waste disposed.

Zero Waste America, Inc. is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the elimination of waste and pollution through legislative reform and the encouragement of "zero waste" business and practices. We provide analysis and a wide range of information on waste issues. Membership is free.

Lynn Landes, ZWA Founder and Director
Pennsylvania's Solid Waste Advisory Committee for Dept. of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) 1995-96
Pennsylvania Municipal Waste Stakeholder (PA DEP) 1995-96
Sierra Club, Solid Waste Chair for Pennsylvania 1995-96