Messing with the term "Zero Waste"

The ubiquitous Support our Troops ribbon. As Noam Chomsky wrote, such slogans can distract us from questioning public policies that are disturbing at a deeper level.
The ubiquitous Support our Troops ribbon. As Noam Chomsky wrote, such slogans can distract us from questioning public policies that are disturbing at a deeper level.

Words have power, as propagandists have known for a very long time. If you can get people thinking in certain terms via the use of certain words, public policy can move successfully in a direction of your choosing, and not against your goals. And best of all, people might not even think they had another option in the first place.

Noam Chomsky put it well when he wrote about slogans like “Support our Troops,” the brilliance of which is that it’s an idea almost no one would oppose, and distracts people from asking questions like, “Do you support our policies?”

Bill Sheehan of the US policy think tank Upstream recently shared an interesting letter in this regard that applies to the waste management industry. Sheehan calls it, “An insightful and important message posted to the Zero Waste International Alliance list by Eric Lombardi of Boulder’s EcoCycle.”

The letter confronts the attempt of municipal officials and members of what he calls “Big Trash” to co-opt the term “Zero Waste” by incorporating it in a new term: “Zero waste to landfill.” Simply put, “Zero waste to landfill” replaces the concept of changing consumer behaviour and the way goods are produced and packaged (to minimize energy and raw material inputs, etc.) with incineration.

Sheehan draws attention to an article in Waste Management World about a program in Indiana extolling how an automated recycling facility will require less conscious participation from citizens. The new “state-of-the-art facility (mixed-waste sorting) will take Indy from a 10% recycling participation rate to 100 percent without any new government mandates, fees or tax increases,” the article states. (I reproduce the article in full below.)

Sheehan also likes (and I agree) Lombardi’s sentence that the act of “participation” means something that is very very important … it means that the person is awake to the value of acting on behalf of community.

Note that I personally view mixed-waste material recovery facilities (MWMRFs) as potentially positive in regard to multi-residential buildings, but I only think they should be used for residual materials from which most fibres and containers have been diverted via a Blue Box-style program. (I also think a range of difficult-to-separate or difficult-to-recycle packaging materials should be prohibited from the marketplace in the first place.) What’s interesting about the Indiana situation is that the MWMRF is being proposed for single-family homes — thus letting lazy-ass homeowners off the hook from sorting their stuff.

All of us engaged in the realm of waste management and recycling need to be conscious that we sometimes work hard to provide effective solutions for temporary problems, and are part of the distraction from long-term sustainability solutions. I’ve written quite a few times that some amount of recycling has an important role to play in sustainability, but our society has obsessed too much about “how to recycle more” when it should be asking, “What would a sustainable society look like?” Focusing on how to recycle more suits the corporate agenda of the soft drink multinationals and their packaging preferences, and a range of other industries that sell everything from laundry soap to potato chips. How would their preferences fair in a truly sustainable system?

“Zero waste to landfill” is kind of like “Support our troops.” In itself it’s something most people agree with, but it diverts us from the much more powerful and daunting concept of “Zero Waste.” The latter calls us to reconsider how our society impacts this planet; the former is just part of a narrow debate about whether it’s better to burn or bury “garbage.”

Anyway, here’s Lombardi’s message, posted to the Zero Waste International Alliance list (the WMW article is below that):

Eric Lombardi <> Jun 20 05:08PM

We have a new problem on our hands and need to confront it. We all know that the industry we know as Big Trash has co-opted the concept of Zero Waste by creating “Zero Waste to Landfill”… implying that burning garbage is somehow OK and can be included in a community “zero waste” plan. And we’ve seen how the clever folks in Vancouver are co-opting the word “MRF” (materials recovery facility) by forcing definitions on the private sector when talking about mixed-waste processing facilities. And now the hocus-pocus PR illusionists are co-opting the term “participation” … see below from this article today in Waste Management World

“This state-of-the-art facility (mixed-waste sorting) will take Indy from a 10% recycling participation rate to 100 percent without any new government mandates, fees or tax increases.” I first heard of this kind of twisted logic from the folks proposing the $100 million mixed-waste facility in Houston and their “One Bin” program … and now it appears that folks in Indianapolis are going to go there as well.

This is truly dark because we all know that the path toward a sustainable future will require true “participation” and behavior change on the part of all of us, billions of people, living in new ways more lightly on our planet. This kind of BS is intended to keep everyone asleep to that inconvenient truth… and we need to shout “foul !!!” when the forces of greed over-reach so badly, as they are here. Anyone with a brain knows that when 10% of the people are actually sorting their discards into the recycling bin that they are “participating” … and that the other 90% who are trashing everything are not. It is the behavior in the house or business that counts here, not what sort of facility the discards are going to. The act of “participation” means something that is very very important … it means that the person is awake to the value of acting on behalf of community. As one who has worked for 30 years to help more people awaken to the power of participation, this Orwellian corporate campaign is so anti-community that it qualifies as a sociopathic act. Here is one definition of sociopathology I found:

On the surface, sociopaths may, at first and even for a long time, appear to function smoothly. Their manners are impeccable; they are well groomed; they fulfill the codes of romance and courtship to a tee. They are likely to be eloquent talkers who lace their speech with impressive sounding facts and figures. They may be fun, laugh a lot, sweep their partner off their feet with their sweetness. They may also seem ambitious, driven, and fond of grand, impetuous schemes for their success. Unfortunately, this behavior is an act for the sociopath. It is simply a means to getting what they want without thought to future consequences or anyone’s feelings. The key trait of sociopaths is that they don’t feel.

Well, I feel plenty when liars and greedsters mess with the vision and beauty of a true Zero Waste Movement. To them it may be a game, but to me it is about life, my kids, the natural world, and being a human that cares about the future.

No more lies! I’m calling BULLSHIT on this! I hope you’ll all join me and kill this latest insult before it gets any legs.

Eric Lombardi, Executive Director

Eco-Cycle International


And here’s the article from  Waste Management World:

Covanta to Build $45m Recycling Facility to Complement Indianapolis Waste to Energy Plant

20 June 2014

By Ben Messenger<>

Managing Editor

New Jersey based waste to energy and recycling firm, Covanta (NYSE: CVA) to build a $45 million recycling facility in Indianapolis.

According to the company, once operational the facility will increase the amount of material recycled in Indianapolis by as much as 500%.

The Covanta Advanced Recycling Center, announced by Mayor Greg Ballard as part of his plan to bring recycling to all single family homes in Indianapolis, is to be built adjacent to Covanta’s existing waste to energy<> facility (pictured) and is designed to recover recyclables from mixed municipal solid waste.

The company added that the facility is said to be modelled after successfully operating recycling facilities in Europe, and will feature the latest mechanical and sensor-based technologies — supported by skilled operators.

“The Covanta Advanced Recycling Center, combined with our Energy-from-Waste facility, will create a first-of-its-kind, next-generation system for sustainably managing waste in North America,” commented Anthony J. Orlando, Covanta president and chief executive officer.

Covanta said that the facility will accomplish the following:

Recover up to 80% to 90% of recyclable materials, increasing recycling<> by approximately 500%

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 40,000 cars from the road every year and save the energy equivalent of the annual energy use of more than 20,000 homes

Complement the existing waste to energy facility by sharing trucks and maintaining current traffic flow and avoiding additional vehicle emissions and burdens on road infrastructure

Help the State of Indiana take a major step forward in recycling, supporting the new state-wide recycling goal of 50%.

“Covanta’s Advanced Recycling Center provides a common sense solution that makes Indy a much more sustainable city,” commented Ballard.

“This state-of-the-art facility will take Indy from a 10% recycling participation rate to 100 percent without any new government mandates, fees or tax increases. It is a win-win-win for the city, its residents and the environment,” added the Mayor.

The recycling plan is expected to give an important boost to the local economy, providing approximately 70 jobs will be created during construction of the facility and 60 permanent, full-time workers will be hired to operate the facility.

However, the plan is subject to approval from the City’s Board of Public Works<>.

Covanta<> said that it expects the facility to be up and running in 2016, following the receipt of necessary permits.

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