Litter bug: The radical repackaging required to go zero waste

New York’s goal of sending “zero waste” to landfills by 2030 may be missing the mark on what the term is really supposed to mean.

Dr. Maggie Clarke, an environmental scientist who has been involved in local waste policy for more than 30 years, said the term zero waste is all about reusing every resource for as long as possible while expending as little energy as possible. Think of the ubiquitous recycling triangle on a much greater scale.

“The full life cycle means that you’re looking at the environmental energy and every other kind of impact from extraction, refining, and manufacturing to transportation links…all the way to the store and to usage,” said Clarke. “As well as what happens to the discarded product.”

She said that if cities like New York are serious about achieving zero waste they have to stop signing long-term contracts for landfilling and incineration. City representatives have said the landfill contracts are a necessary insurance policy until other programs kick in, but have made no such pledge on incineration. After all, the plan is zero waste to landfills by 2030.

Gary Anderson in 1970 (right) and his original design of the recycling logo.wikipedia

Gary Anderson in 1970 (right) and his original design of the recycling logo.

A true zero waste system could require a radical shift in how commerce works in the city and require steps far beyond what many people may be willing to accept.

The debate over New York’s trash has always boiled down to a few key questions—how to collect it, what to do with it and whether residents will change how they dispose of it. Yet this often ignores the overarching question of how the things people buy are made in the first place and what government should do to regulate them.

Last year’s OneNYC sustainability plan took a new tack in that debate. After outlining plans to convene trade associations, waste management companies, manufacturers and retailers to find ways to make packaging more recyclable, the plan makes a bold claim.

New York City will become a global leader in the movement to develop a ‘circular economy’ where resources are used again and again.


“New York City will become a global leader in the movement to develop a ‘circular economy’ where resources are used again and again, rather than mined from the earth and dumped into landfills,” the plan said.

The term “circular economy” goes hand-in-hand with “zero waste,” but it also looks at the full lifecycle of an item. Rather than the linear path where a bottle is used once and ends up in a landfill, it would be reused and recycled in a loop for as long as possible in a circular economy.

Repackaging the Packaging

While the rise of disposable packaging has been beneficial in many cases, it also brings serious consequences. Urban environments are designed for quick one-use purchases rather than buying in bulk or reusing containers. Even items that are recycled may have never needed to exist in the first place. Local regulations to encourage reusable items or hold producers responsible for the disposal of certain products have usually been shot down and the question of what exactly it means for something to be “recyclable” is still up for debate.

The Department of Sanitation said its first step toward a circular economy will be talking to beverage brands, glass manufacturers, recycling processors and city representatives this year about issues around glass recycling. Glass has traditionally been less valuable than other materials and has recently taken such a hit that many smaller communities throughout the country have stopped collecting it for recycling.

Tom Outerbridge, general of manager of the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in Brooklyn, said that glass is a challenge because it’s expensive to transport a heavy material that has low value. As for the city’s overall goal of having more recycled material in packaging he didn’t have a strong opinion.

“Recycled content doesn’t directly affect us, but indirectly it’s very important,” said Outerbridge.

Recyclability comes down to profitability and some types of material aren’t currently worth the money it takes to separate and process them. Low oil prices have made it cheaper to create certain types of plastic from scratch rather than recycle it and downturns in China’s economy have decreased demand for U.S. scrap metal as well.

Some advocates think the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR), in which manufacturers are on the hook for part of an item’s disposal costs, could help change this equation.

Outerbridge didn’t commit to supporting EPR, but was open to the possibility.

“There’s nothing wrong with that in principle,” he said. “They should absolutely be examined as a way to level the playing field for the recycling industry.”

Efforts to place a small fee on single-use plastic bags and ban polystyrene have been met with serious resistance.

Comprehensive EPR laws have existed in many other countries for decades. They range from guidelines on the amount of recycled material in packaging to requiring that companies offer some sort of recovery service for certain types of products. The U.S. also has EPR laws, often focused on specific items—computers, paint, batteries, mercury thermostats, prescription medication, mattresses—rather than broad categories of packaging material.

New York City residents have options to drop off many of these items at dedicated sites. As of 2015 it is also illegal to put e-waste—computers, cell phones, etc.—in with regular trash. Yet city efforts to place a small fee on single-use plastic bags and ban polystyrene have been met with serious resistance in recent years.

Bill Sheehan, founder of sustainability think tank Upstream and an early advocate for zero waste, said he is encouraged by progress in EPR laws over the past 20 years. Yet he thinks it will be hard to make substantial advances going forward under the current system.

“Municipalities can potentially have a lot of leverage, even though a lot of the policies and questions are better done at the state or federal level,” he said. “Cities are the ones that are holding the bag. Currently waste management is a municipal responsibility.”

Regulations for waste policy vary widely within and between states. Sheehan said that without collective action at a federal level corporations are unlikely to feel the need to make major changes in the way they create packaging.

“The more recycling, the more money they’ll make. The more reuse, the more waste prevention, the less stuff they’re going to sell,” he said.

When asked whether stricter EPR regulations or a scenario in which producers paid some part of collection and disposal costs were part of the city’s conversations with companies, the Department of Sanitation had the following response: “Extended producer responsibility measures are one of many tools for increasing recycled content and recyclability of new products. Sanitation remains actively involved with discussions around extended producer responsibility, as well as other voluntary measures,” said Kathy Dawkins, director of public affairs, in an emailed statement.

The Plasticity of the Plastic Problem

According to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastic production has increased twenty-fold over the last 50 years and most plastic packaging is only used once.

A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems.

“A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure,” the report said.

In 2050, oceans could have more plastic than fish when measured by weight.

A recent study ranked the U.S. 20th in terms of mismanaged plastic waste that ends up in the ocean—China was first—but also showed that U.S. residents produce more waste per person than any other country on the list.

A scavenger picks up plastic bags at an open dump on April 2, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China.Getty Images

A scavenger picks up plastic bags at an open dump on April 2, 2008 in Chongqing Municipality, China.

Large companies have begun making investments in environmental initiatives. Unilever actually helped fund the MacArthur report. The Closed Loop Fund—comprising companies such as Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and 3M—has pledged to invest $100 million in local recycling infrastructure. Many companies have also partnered with the New Jersey-based company TerraCycle to help collect specific, hard-to-recycle items such as pen caps, cigarette butts, and drink pouches for reuse.

Investment from these brand names marks a trend that may also be good for business as consumers become more eco-conscious in their purchasing. A recent study projected that the “green packaging” market will grow by more than 7% between 2016 and 2020, with Europe leading the way. Bioplastics have become a popular alternative and Ikea may even replace its polystyrene with biodegradable “fungi packaging.”

These investments show progress, but must all be viewed through the lens of a product’s full life-cycle. Some of the green packaging on store shelves can require more energy to create, transport or dispose of than traditional packaging and some municipalities may not be set up to properly process it.

As always, the burden of waste management comes back to being a mostly local issue. And as with many local issues, participation is key.

“If you want zero waste you not only have to target everything that is reusable, reducible, compostable and recyclable, but you also need to have 100% participation or close to it,” said Clarke.

In New York City, that means getting over eight million people involved.

This is the fourth and final installment of articles exploring the future of waste in New York. Read the rest here.