San Francisco Bay Chapter Sierra Club


Zero Waste

The Bay Area has become one the centers for waste-reduction and recycling in the U.S. Since Earth Day 1970. Reduced solid waste and improved resource management have been “front and center” in this area's agenda. The Bay Chapter with its Zero Waste Committee is a focal point of that activity.

As recycling became common in the 1980s, many states aimed to reduce garbage being dumped by 20 - 30 - 40% or even 50%, and as these goals were easily met, the question emerged, “What next?” The concept of Zero Waste became the new rallying cry for those wishing to conserve precious natural resources while simultaneously reducing the toxic effects of waste disposal. Around the world and in California, cities adopted Zero Waste goals, hoping to eliminate garbage 10, 20, and 30 years in the future.

The concept of Zero Waste is simple: eliminate wasting! In our complex economy, products must be designed to be cycled--just as nature has always done. In a Zero Waste World everything needs to be bio-compatible and toxic-free. In a Zero Waste world today’s discards endlessly become tomorrow’s resources. There is a place for every discarded thing, and every thing in its right place. The only good garbage can is an empty one that never gets used!

Implementation, of course, is the problem. Publicly supported “waste services" are designed to make it easy to throw things--to that mythical place known as “away”. We pay for the simple service of solid-waste/recycling pick-up but are never charged for the environmental destruction caused by the extraction, processing, and discharge into the environment of the energy and materials used to create the products we “throw away”. How do we change this?

Zero Waste Committee

The Sierra Club Bay Chapter's Zero Waste Committee is one of the most informed and articulate collections of Zero Waste advocates in the United States. The committee’s knowledge and commitment to Zero Waste has been forged on the anvil of experience. Our job is to blow away the smoke, mirrors, and urban myths perpetuating our society’s proclivities for wasting resources. The committee keeps a watchful eye on legislation, and provides technical assistance to local government agencies and ongoing advice to Sierra Club committees and staff.

The committee includes the founders and the operation managers of Urban Ore (a Berkeley legend for materials re-use), three former presidents of the Northern California Recycling Association, the director of research for SPRAWLDEF (the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling And Wildlife Legal Defense Fund), the operations chief for San Francisco's recycling collections and processing program, the former director of New Zealand's Waste-Minimization Association, the president of Sustainable Marin, the national vice president of zero-waste practice for a national engineering firm, and the author of the Introduction to Recycling textbook. The committee welcomes one and all to participate in our deliberations; we meet bi-monthly or as required, usually on Monday evenings in Berkeley. For details or to be placed on our e-mail list, contact acting secretary Arthur R. Boone at arboone3@gmail.com or (510)910-6451.

Don't burn, don't bury

In the middle of the last century, the wasting industry changed the name of disposal facilities from “dumps” to “sanitary landfills and started calling incinerators “waste to energy” projects. By any name, for the sake of generations of children to come, a Zero Waste World has no place for burying or burning of resources:

  • We mustn't release toxic substances into the environment.
  • We must conserve resources, using them for their highest and best uses.

The Bay Chapter has led numerous campaigns to stop waste and mitigate the damages it causes

  • In the settlement of a lawsuit the Bay Chapter helped bring, the Altamont Landfill in eastern Alameda County was capped at half the original proposed capacity, dumping restricted to local jurisdictions, and "tipping fees" were imposed to help compensate for the damage done by the facility.
  • In Contra Costa County, a series of five lawsuits between 1989 and 1994 by the Chapter blocked construction of a growth-inducing landfill in the Marsh Creek area south of Brentwood.

Reuse and recycling

The Bay Chapter has a long history of making recycling and product reuse happen. The Bay Chapter took the lead on Measure D, the Alameda County Waste Reduction and Recycling Act of 1990, setting a countywide goal of reducing waste going to landfills by 75% by 2010. Our committee drafted it, led the gathering of signatures to put it on the ballot, led the campaign to pass it, and defended it in court.

Eliminating single-use products: plastic bags

In 2005, Californians used 21 billion plastic grocery bags; by 2012 they used only 14 billion. Over 50 cities and counties have banned plastic bags in some or all retail outlets, and other practices have replaced the previous “use once, then toss” system.

The Sierra Club's Marin County Group played an active role in winning the adoption of Marin's plastic-bag ordinance. Zero Waste Committee members have testified before local governments considering ordinances on plastic use and are working for a state law as well.

Full-spectrum organics

When home collection of segregated organic materials began in the late 1980s, only yard debris was allowed in the cart. Then many Bay Area communities began allowing food debris and soiled paper, changing the name of what's collected to “organics". Today about 80% of Bay Chapter residents have home collection of “full-spectrum organics”: if it rots, put it in the green cart. No other metropolitan area in the entire USA has such full-spectrum market penetration.

The Zero Waste Committee continues to monitor and track this development. The Club's Northern Alameda County Group has worked particularly to assure separate bins for compostables for Oakland apartment and multi-unit dwellers.

Other concerns

Other Zero Waste topics of concern for the committee are:

  • mitigation of environmental damage from waste disposal;
  • elimination of bio-hazardous products (i.e. plastic bags, toxic materials);
  • community/industry-partnership take-back programs;
  • living wages for recycling workers
  • advancing Zero Waste infrastructure investment: construction and demolition yards, resource-recovery parks, secondary-product manufacturing, repair shops, reuse products and shops, clean-stream material recovery.

Policies for the future

In the above areas the Sierra Club has clear positions. The Zero Waste Committee also discusses the unresolved issues of the future. Recycling of basic used materials such as paper, glass, metals, and plastics has stabilized, but recycling of other products and materials has been harder to establish; currently featured are mattresses, pharmaceuticals, paints, and household batteries.

Currently a most perplexing resource-conservation issue for the committee is “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)”: "making the manufacturer of the product responsible for the entire life-cycle of the product and especially for the take-back, recycling and final disposal" (from Thomas Lindhqvist, "Towards an [EPR]-analysis of experiences and proposals," April 1992, cited at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_producer_responsibility#cite_note-3).

Twenty years ago this idea seemed like a tremendous advance for keeping all sorts of items out of the waste stream, but problems have emerged. Local governments often favor EPR, since it relieves them of the costly responsibilities of materials management. State laws now require producers to create markets for certain used products and materials at the end of their useful lives. Some industries accept this, others resist strongly, and still others demand watered-down legislation.

The deeper problem, though, is: once manufacturers take back their products, what will they do with them? We would like to see them reuse the items when possible, and when reuse is not possible, to recycle the component materials and use them for their highest and best uses. But in too many cases materials are being collected under EPR for incineration. or disposed of in ways that allow toxic components to escape into the environment.