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Blog item: Austin's Zero Waste... or Pretty Darn Close

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4 comments, last: Jan-21-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Jan-20-2009)    Play a Video
Categories: Global Warming, Pollution, Renewable Energy Sources, Sustainable Living

Austin plans to nearly eliminate wasteAustin has announced plans for a 90% reduction in waste output by the year 2040.  In a light vein, they refer to their program as "Zero Waste... or Pretty Darn Close".  I find this initiative to be quite interesting, of course.  Now, Austin is known as the most enlightened of Texas' major urban centers, and the center of their technology industries, so it is not surprising that Austin would be one of the leaders in setting a Zero Waste goal, but to be honest, I am astounded that a city could seriously set such a goal, seeing how hard it is to make solid and liquid wastes just "disappear".

So, is this a real goal?  Yes and no.  I suspect that Austin will end up happy with, say, a 50% or 60% reduction in waste; in this view, they are setting the bar high just to get people, including themselves, moving forward at a good pace.  There is a good deal of initial thought and planning going on, indeed.

Here are some essential links pointing to this effort:

Draft proposal for Zero Waste Austin (MS Word document)
Home Page for "Austin's Future: Zero Waste"

The current plans, developed by a consultant, are still somewhat general and involve pushing part of the responsibility for the waste cuts onto county governments and business.

After careful reading, these are the major components of the actual waste reduction:

1) Reduce, reuse, recycle - increase all of these by increasing fees for waste disposal for both private residents and commercial haulers; use the extra income to fund other aspects of the Zero Waste plan

2) Compost - set up pilot programs and operational locations, especially in educational institutions and appropriate business locations with sufficient useable space

3) Prohibit products with excessive or wasteful packaging

4) Provide educational opportunities to raise awareness of how individuals, businesses, and other institutions can comply with Zero Waste goals

There appear to be some flaws in the plan, primarily those that start with the word "Ask".  The draft plan includes "asking" businesses and counties within Austin to comply with the Zero Waste goals, including all the steps needed to reach that goal.  Since there will be some significant costs to get this program underway at every level, it is not clear how many of these entities, whether commercial or governmental, will comply with the goals.  As of this initial draft, there appear to be no mandates imposed on counties inside Austin, and some significant but not all-inclusive mandates that will be imposed on businesses.

There is also no mention of the one effective means of eliminating plastics and some other difficult forms of waste: high-temperature combustion (which breaks down all the toxic materials in plastic). Some form of combustion would be necessary in order to come close to eliminating waste plastic.

Will this plan, if and when finalized, significantly reduce pollution and save energy?  No doubt of it.  Will it achieve a 90% reduction in waste volume as targeted for the year 2040?  Maybe.  There is a good deal of time built in to this plan to get the policies right, but it will require additional thinking and successful actions to achieve the high goal being set, and some major investments in the new way of doing things.

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-21-2009)   Web site
It's interesting that in Asia, where there is much greater economic stress among many citizens (despite China's current governmental wealth), the poor people routinely disassemble consumer electronics, plumbing, and other garbage in order to re-sell metals such as copper and the components in electronics. I don't know how they would handle, say, a pot with an aluminum base and plastic handle, or a microwave, but it would seem logical to assume that they would also be disassembled if there was a simple way to do so. World-wide we should have a system in place to separate plastic, glass, and metal, and to recycle whatever parts can be recycled.

Ideally, manufacturers should be required to use vegetable-based plastics wherever possible in the manufacturing design, and to make all products easy to disassemble for recycling. I expect that will happen in the near future as the cost of raw materials increases due to energy shortages and other difficulty locating and mining the raw materials. Such cost increases are one factor that will push companies into finding better ways to use recycled products, and the effect will spread throughout supply chains. Local and state government regulations, incentives and fees are already increasing as well, though not yet on a national level in the United States.

I expect we will see more and more such governmental initiatives in the USA and other countries during the next ten years.
Comment by: City Worker (Jan-21-2009)   

I’ve been wondering: we have things set up to recycle a product that is mainly, let’s say plastic or paper or maybe wood. But what do we do with products that don’t fall into any main category --- products that are, let’s say 50% wood and 50% metal?
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-20-2009)   Web site

I agree with you, CP, as does Dr. James Hansen (see this article) and many others. I am afraid that despite their good wishes, most governmental decision makers are still in slow-motion mode.

I keep hoping that we, the alarmed ones, are wrong, but the science keeps saying that we are right or at least, that there is a high likelihood we are right in advising much more rapid, vigorous efforts to change all the systems.
Comment by: choopixie (choopixie) (Jan-20-2009)   Web site

It's great that Austin is setting such a high goal to reduce waste by 2040. But, 2040 is such a long time away. How much more can Earth take before our planet gets a complete overhaul? I hope local and federal governments all over the world act much faster than this.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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