Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes.
At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into five-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back.
And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash Dumpsters altogether.
Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.
The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.
Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.
“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,” said Jon D. Johnston, a materials management branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”
Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per person per day, according to the E.P.A.’s most recent figures. More than half of that ends up in landfills or is incinerated.
But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island.
The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates the recycling not only of commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also of tires, batteries and household appliances.
Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of course for most residents.
The complex also has a garagelike structure where residents can drop off books and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.
The 100-car parking lot at the landfill is a lively meeting place for locals, Mr. Lentowski added. “Saturday morning during election season, politicians hang out there and hand out campaign buttons,” he said. “If you want to get a pulse on the community, that is a great spot to go.”
Mr. Willett said that while the amount of trash that island residents carted to the dump had remained steady, the proportion going into the landfill had plummeted to 8 percent.
By contrast, Massachusetts residents as a whole send an average of 66 percent of their trash to a landfill or incinerator. Although Mr. Willett has lectured about the Nantucket model around the country, most communities still lack the infrastructure to set a zero-waste target.
Aside from the difficulty of persuading residents and businesses to divide their trash, many towns and municipalities have been unwilling to make the significant capital investments in machines like composters that can process food and yard waste. Yet attitudes are shifting, and cities like San Francisco and Seattle are at the forefront of the changeover. Both of those cities have adopted plans for a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in residential areas for composting.
Food waste, which the E.P.A. says accounts for about 13 percent of total trash nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total — is viewed as the next big frontier.
When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more, when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no methane by-product.
Green Foodservice Alliance, a division of the Georgia Restaurant Association, has been adding restaurants throughout Atlanta and its suburbs to its so-called zero-waste zones. And companies are springing up to meet the growth in demand from restaurants for recycling and compost haulers.
Steve Simon, a partner in Fifth Group, a company that owns Ecco and four other restaurants in the Atlanta area, said that the hardest part of participating in the alliance’s zero-waste-zone program was not training his staff but finding reliable haulers.
“There are now two in town, and neither is a year old, so it is a very tentative situation,” Mr. Simon said.
Still, he said he had little doubt that the hauling sector would grow and that all five of the restaurants would eventually be waste-free.
Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement. Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone, made from plant materials like cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items that are compostable.
Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, a nonprofit organization that certifies such products, said that the number of companies making compostable products for food service providers had doubled since 2006 and that many had moved on to items like shopping bags and food packaging.
The transition to zero waste, however, has its pitfalls.
Josephine Miller, an environmental official for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., which bans the use of polystyrene foam containers, said that some citizens had unwittingly put the plant-based alternatives into cans for recycling, where they had melted and had gummed up the works. Yellowstone and some institutions have asked manufacturers to mark some biodegradable items with a brown or green stripe.
Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say.
“Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done,” said Mr. Johnston of the E.P.A.
He expects private companies and businesses to move faster than private citizens because momentum can be driven by one person at the top.
“It will take a lot longer to get average Americans to compost,” Mr. Johnston said. “Reaching down to my household and yours is the greatest challenge.”