Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 30, 2012

On Deadline: Is 'Zero Waste' just wishful thinking? Is 'Carbon Free' achievable?

by Jay Thorwaldson

Not much has been heard recently about local progress toward a "Zero Waste" goal, but it's been an official part of Palo Alto for nearly seven years now.

Last week it resurfaced.

And a new goal — or perhaps "vision" is a better description — is being proposed as an add-on: "Carbon Free."

Palo Alto has a remarkable record of supporting, even pioneering, the so-called "green" initiatives, dating back to the early 1970s — when "Think globally, act locally" became an operational motto for the movement.

But is "zero" an exaggeration of what's possible, given the entrenched manufacturing and marketing systems that spend billions of dollars annually doing what they do? Much of what they do, we all know, is to create products and packages for products, both designed to attract purchasers with subtle, often invisible, motivators.

There's a danger: If zero's an exaggeration does it undermine the vision/goal in the minds and hearts of the average person, the broad population, not the already committed green-supporters and activists — yet which is an essential part of effective action nationally?

In Palo Alto, Zero Waste became an official city objective on Oct. 18, 2005, following a six-month study of the topic by a "Zero Waste Task Force" of business, city staff and individuals.

Fast forward to last week, when on Thursday, March 22, Wendy Hediger, the city's Zero Waste Program coordinator, launched a series of workshops designed to help residents become "Zero Waste block leaders."

The block leaders would become experts on recycling and reuse, able to "supply information on ways to reduce one's garbage to almost zero; disperse information about upcoming Zero Waste events and issues; and foster neighborhood waste-reduction efforts," according to a city announcement." Residents interested in becoming block leaders can e-mail zerowaste@cityofpaloalto.org or call 650-496-5910.

The goal of the 2005 city policy was by 2021 to eliminate nearly all the garbage and waste produced by Palo Altans, businesses and the city itself, following a seven-point strategy and an operational plan developed following the council action. Strategic actions include encouraging businesses to manufacture products that use fewer materials and produce less waste; offering recycling and composting services to all; and creating incentives for businesses to cooperate in reducing garbage/waste.

Note that the terms used are "fewer," "less" and "reducing" — not "eliminating" except as qualified by "nearly all." Not "zero."

In itself, reducing the shocking volume of waste in America is more than a worthy goal, or vision. It is a national necessity due to continuing population increases, the acceleration of waste volumes and a finite number of landfill sites as existing sites fill up and close down — as did Palo Alto's last year. Distant sites become increasingly problematic as fuel prices soar and government budgets crunch.

Yet reducing waste can be smart business. Some firms report that rethinking their operations (from landscaping to building design/redesign, from conserving energy to reducing refuse) saves them hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars annually, depending on size of business.

Yet there can be costs. In Palo Alto, the enthusiasm of residents in recent years for reducing refuse has caused the city to fall short of a guaranteed minimum goal for the Kirby Canyon landfill and has been costing the city a six-figure penalty each year for materials never delivered. The reason is a long-term contract dating from the early 1990s, when there was a "landfill-rush" to get long-term contracts for dwindling landfill sites. Few envisioned a waste-reduction rush.

One result of this and a new refuse-pickup contract will be significantly higher garbage-pickup rates for residents. Ouch.

Yet no one is advocating a "produce more waste" solution.

There's a bigger picture behind all this: "global warming" but more broadly and more accurately called "climate change" — due to mankind's profligate production of "greenhouse gases" over decades. Effects include rapidly melting polar ice and glaciers (and rising sea levels) to more volatile weather patterns, triggering hurricanes and tornadoes. There are believers and deniers, and the simply confused (even if concerned). It's "the-sky-is-falling" Chicken Little vs. the head-in-the-sand ostrich.

The Zero Waste effort is national. "Zero Waste America" is a nonprofit organization dating from the 1990s (www.zerowasteamerica.org). It sums up the challenge this way: "Essentially, America's (and most nations') treatment of waste is the 'free market' at its worst, with the focus on making money, not sense." The United States "has no effective federal laws or infrastructure in place to maximize recycling, minimize waste, nor protect the environment and public health."

"What happened to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1976?" it asks, alleging lack of enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency of the mandated state-level waste-management programs.

The Zero Waste Alliance, based in Portland, Ore., combines businesses, universities and government agencies into a multi-pronged effort: "The visionary goal of Zero Waste expresses the need for a closed-loop industrial/societal system" to reduce waste on a broad front. A "Zero Waste International Alliance" broadens the scope to worldwide.

"Waste is a sign of inefficiency," the Zero Waste Alliance states on its website. "Our use of the term Zero Waste includes 'Zero Solid Waste,' 'Zero Hazardous Waste,' 'Zero Toxics' and 'Zero Emissions.'

Meanwhile, a new organization surfaced last year in Palo Alto with the goal of making the city "Carbon Free." (See http://carbonfreepaloalto.org.)

Its founder, Bruce Hodge, says his goal is simple, inexpensive and near-term.

"I'm intensely concerned about climate change," he explains. "Last year I founded Carbon Free Palo Alto, an organization that is championing an initiative to bring carbon-free electricity to Palo Alto by 2015.

"In a nutshell, we can make Palo Alto's electricity 100 percent carbon-free in a short period of time and for a very modest cost. The impact is huge: resulting in about a 20 percent reduction of Palo Alto's emissions."

He's getting support: "The mayor, council members and other city officials have expressed interest in the initiative. They're hoping to move forward with the basic concept, but we need more support from the public to back them," he said.

And there's a broader vision: "Palo Alto is a community that has a lot of name recognition. We believe that Palo Alto's actions will spur similar efforts both regionally and nationwide, and Carbon Free Palo Alto plans to help spread the word when we're successful in decarbonizing our electricity."

Despite a modest increase in electric bills from the city-owned system, rates would still be below those of PG&E, he says.

"Carbon free is not a pipe-dream," he emphasizes, convincingly citing a variety of city and other reports on the subject.

And perhaps "Zero Waste" isn't either.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

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