May 2011

Zero Waste Communities

Gary Liss

Local governments and communities large and small around the world are embracing Zero Waste as a key tool to meet their goals for addressing climate change. New Zealand is the first country to have adopted Zero Waste as a goal nationally.

In the U.S., California was the first state to adopt Zero Waste as one of eight goals in the 2001 Strategic Plan of the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board. Over 20 communities there are working to develop and implement plans to reach that goal.

The links between Zero Waste and climate change are significant. Solid wastes buried in landfills create methane gas in the anaerobic conditions. Methane gas is 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide in impacting the planet’s climate. And for every ton of waste that reaches municipal landfills, 71 tons have been created “upstream” from mining, manufacturing and distribution of wastes.

Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WARM model to calculate the effect of recycling and composting all the materials currently discarded in California, that state’s Resource Recovery Association Recyclers Global Warming Council calculated that it would be the equivalent of taking all the cars off the road in California.

Therefore, it’s key to climate change isto keep all organics out of landfills. In fact, Zero Waste or dramatically increased local waste reduction efforts is one of the single most effective ways that local governments can immediately address climate change.

There are many “Cool Cities,” “Green Cities” and sustainability programs now developing for local governments to participate in. Over 900 communities worldwide are part of the ICLEI network of Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is working with over 400 communities in the U.S. to address solid waste issues as part of their sustainability planning. However, the only local sustainability program that has included Zero Waste as a goal so far is the UN-sponsored Urban Environmental Awards, which have been adopted by over 100 cities worldwide.

The Zero Waste International Alliance definition of Zero Waste:

“Zero Waste is a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”

Communities can significantly change what is “economic” in the local marketplace with policies such as changes in rate structures; changes in compensation, fees and taxes for waste handlers; zoning overlays for reuse and recycling businesses; permit requirements; conditions of land use permits; and many other legal tools. Communities only need as large a plan as required to get their elected officials to approve the program, policies and budget to move forward.

In North America, ZERI-trained System Designer Gary Liss & Associates has worked or is working with the following communities to develop plans for Zero Waste:


• Burbank

• Culver City

• Del Norte County

• Los Angeles

• Oakland

• Palo Alto

• San Jose

Other United States

• Albuquerque, NM (selected sites)

• Austin, TX

• Carroll County, MD

• Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District

• New York City (reviewed Citizens Zero Waste Plan)

• Telluride, CO

Other North America

• Nelson, British Columbia

For a full list of communities around the world that have adopted Zero Waste as a goal, go to:

Gary Liss may be contacted at For more info, visit

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