Getting to Zero Waste

January 25, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Canadians are really good at something and that's bad. No prizes are given for excellence at making garbage.

A recently issued report confirms " North Americans are among the largest producers of municipal solid waste in the world."

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation's (CEC) first State of the Environment Report entitled "The North American Mosaic" (downloadable from states that in "per capita terms, US and Canadian citizens produce about twice the municipal waste of Mexicans."

The CEC is an international organization -- created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation -- that complements the environmental provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

"The North American Mosaic" highlights the many ways this continent's citizens are reshaping the environment and using it up at an unsustainable rate. The report concludes there are problems with over-fishing, soil erosion, and freshwater species extinction. Our forests, agriculture, and mineral, energy and water use have reached critical stages. "Perverse subsidies" that encourage high consumption work against the goal of sustainability, says the report issued on January 7.

North America produces over 227 million tonnes of hazardous waste each year according to the CEC report. "People are becoming ill because our wastes compromise the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink," it states.

Despite the achievements of waste reduction programs, North Americans continue to make more municipal solid waste, a point confirmed in Biocycle magazine's December issue. The annual "State of Garbage in America" report found little change in the nation's rates of recycling, landfilling and incineration, while the amount of municipal solid waste generated increased by more than 26 million tons.

The magazine's 2001 survey found a total of 409,029,000 tons of municipal solid waste was generated in the United States in 2000, an increase of seven percent from the previous year's report. The magazine calculated America's recycling rate at 32 percent, down one percent from the previous year and the first time that BioCycle's "State of Garbage in America" survey has reported a decline in the recycling rate. An article summarizing the report can be found at

These vast amounts of waste consumed energy and resources in their manufacture, yet our "throwaway" society counts the waste as an economic good toward the Gross Domestic Product because someone makes money hauling, burying, or burning this waste. Now that's really perverse!

A growing body of evidence indicates there is a better way. Like nature, humans can eliminate or reuse waste.

The truth is the maximum economic value of the waste is not being realized by our waste management system. Embodied energy and resource values are not fully captured by landfills or incinerators. Sure a landfill may recapture methane gas and a waste to energy incinerator may generate electricity, but the value derived from the waste is minimal.

Before all (or as much as possible) waste is designed out of our production and consumption systems, we need to find an interim step that will maximize the true value of waste. We need to realize waste is a resource and treat it accordingly. Of course, producers also need to realize their role in minimizing waste and embrace the concept of extended producer responsibility. A GrassRoots Recycling Network web site with information on this topic is

While diverting usable material from the waste stream is an old idea, a resource recovery park is a new development in recycling and local economic development. In its broadest sense, a resource recovery park is the co-location of reuse, recycling, compost processing, manufacturing and retail businesses in a central facility. Sometimes called integrated resource recovery facilities, serial recovery facilities, or -- more simply -- discard malls, resource recovery parks provide a one-stop "drop and shop" location where the public can bring wastes and recoverable materials at one time.

Check out the Citizen's Agenda for Zero Waste on the GrassRoots Recycling web site at and you'll learn a lot about zero waste. Go to the Zero Waste Recovery Parks section at and you'll find out how these resource recovery parks fit into a new eco-industrial society.

Resource recovery parks enable local governments and their constituents to save money by reducing the amount of wastes going to landfills or incinerators; realize value and revenue from the sale of recovered materials; and buy and sell items and materials from reuse, recycling, and composting vendors. Five excellent fact sheets for local government can be downloaded from

Resource recovery parks can be the core of an comprehensive strategy for local resource management. When combined with incentives for recycling, disincentives for wasting, and a commitment to gradually phase out reliance on waste facilities, such an arrangement can be the centrepiece of a Zero Waste community.

A resource recovery park also helps participating businesses by matching wastes from one company to the resource needs of another. It is an innovative, supportive, and fertile ground for new ideas on how to expand reuse, recycling, and composting in an area.

Developing resource recovery parks requires collaboration and planning by local government officials. Resource recovery parks can be privately financed, or local government can create an authority whose role is to secure the land, build the core facility and lease space to private entrepreneurs -- as is frequently done for airports.

The author is currently working on just such a resource recovery park for Nelson, BC. Check out the web sites at and to learn more. For case studies on resource recovery park in California visit

Resource recovery parks put reuse first, recycling second, composting third, and wasting last. If you're not in favour of Zero Waste, just how much waste are you in favour of?

ONE SMALL STEP - Start a Zero Waste movement in your community. A resource recovery park will provide the economic spark for a new era of resource management. It will create jobs, conserve energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve the environment, and, most importantly, leave a legacy of hope for future generations. Now that's something that is worthy of a prize.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services and helps businesses and communities find sustainable solutions to environmental problems. He can be reached at (250) 229-5632 or e-mailed at His firm's award-winning web site is at

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at to arrange appropriate payment.