Twenty years ago Maurice Strong, the secretary-general of the United Nations' first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, declared that if our planet was to remain a hospitable and sustainable home for humans, the battle would be won or lost in major urban areas.
Strong's message is even more important today, with more people now living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history.
Among the many consequences of this human migration is the issue of waste, an issue that affects city dwellers not only from environmental and social points of view, but also in terms of economic impacts - from the rising financial costs of waste management through to the impact of waste on human health.
Many cities around the world are coming up with innovative ways to tackle waste and are trying to reduce the amount of waste generated by households and businesses.
San Francisco has been at the forefront of efforts to reduce waste through recycling, composting and other innovative programs for several years. In itself, that is an achievement to brag about, but San Francisco has set its sights on a loftier goal - to become a zero waste city by 2020.
San Francisco is not alone. Nearby Oakland, California launched a similar initiative in 2006 with a goal to reduce the annual amount of waste directed toward landfills from 400,000 tons to 40,000 annually by 2020.
The City of Los Angeles is developing a 20-year Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan (known affectionately as 'SWIRP'), for its solid waste and recycling programs to lead Los Angeles closer towards being a 'zero waste' city by 2030.
Seattle, which diverts about 54% of its waste from the dump and hopes to reach 70% by 2022, mandates recycling for businesses and residents, and requires food composting for single-family residences.
Many other cities around the world are striving to develop better recycling systems and to increase the rates of diversion of solid wastes from landfills.
In the Middle East, the ultra-futuristic Masdar City development being constructed in the desert near Abu Dhabi not only plans to be carbon neutral, it also plans to reduce wastes to near zero by processing biological waste to create a nutrient-rich soil and reusing industrial wastes such as plastics.
In Sydney, Australia the zero-waste initiative is part of a larger, more integrated plan to be 'green, global, connected' by 2030. City council plans for instance to build a network of 'Green Transformers' that would cut the carbon content of electricity, provide low greenhouse hot water, heating, and cooling for both new and existing buildings.
Green Transformers would also be configured to use the waste heat to transform sewage into recycled water. Within the next two decades the vision is that half of the City's waste be digested and returned as electricity into the local distribution network.
Becoming a zero waste city is a huge undertaking that involves more than physical plants for the processing of solid or biological wastes, or recycling recoverable material.
It also involves changing the mindsets of the people living in these cities and gaining a clear understanding of where waste materials are being generated, what types of materials are involved, and how best they can be dealt with.
The City of Vancouver recognizes this and is working to nurture a zero waste culture through a combination of public information programs, inspirational messaging, and the use of incentives, all backed up by tough enforcement.
Educational materials and outreach activities are designed to be transformative and raise the collective consciousness of citizens and City staff.
Community-based social marketing will be used as the primary means of addressing barriers and promoting behaviour change. Social media will be used to broadcast messages and a particular emphasis will be placed on empowering youth to build healthy peer pressure.
The City plans to establish a Neighbourhood Zero Waste Network of individuals, organizations and businesses to promote information exchanges between the city and the community on zero waste issues and to build consumer support for those businesses and enterprises that provide reuse and recycling services.
Smart Waste Management is the key
The City of San Francisco already enjoys a 78% landfill diversion rate, one of the highest in North America. Working closely with Recology, San Francisco's resource recovery company, the city plans to continue reducing landfill disposal by further improving its recycling programs.
Recology makes an extensive use of information technology to pinpoint the location, types and amount of waste to be collected for sorting, recycling or composting.
This 'smarter' approach has reduced garbage sent to area landfills by 49.7%, from 730,000 tons in 2000 to 367,300 tons in 2011; 1.2 million tons of paper has been recycled (the equivalent of 20 million trees); 174,000 tons of glass has been recycled, saving enough energy to power the city's cable car system for nearly three years; and the 135,000 tons of metal recycled has generated enough income to offset the purchase of 19 million gallons of oil.
Why is Zero Waste important?
The concept of Zero Waste has implications that go far beyond individual cities or companies. On a global scale the concept has staggering importance in terms of economic and social impacts. As environmental journalist Marc Gunther has noted, zero waste is such a radical idea because it leads to a new way of thinking.
'Getting to a wasteless world,' he notes, 'will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.'
Business is Responding
If cities are moving more aggressively towards zero waste, companies that depend on picking up and disposing of people's garbage will need to reinvent themselves to ensure survival.
Waste Management Inc., North America's largest waste haulage company, is focusing less attention on landfill management and more on recycling facilities that allow for recovering greater value from municipal waste streams. It is also deploying consultants to help cities and businesses to use less and to throw away less, thereby saving money and is exploring new technologies to generate energy from both its solid and organic waste streams.
Companies such as General Motors, Walmart, Procter & Gamble, and DuPont are also looking at zero waste principles for their operations.
GLOBE 2012 speaker Linda Fisher, who has been DuPont's chief sustainability officer since 2004, notes that DuPont's Drive to Zero initiative grew from a review of the risks and opportunities arising from environmental issues.
Those reviews confirmed that better waste management was an important business opportunity for DuPont, and the company has responded accordingly. (See GLOBE-net article ' An Interview with Linda Fisher Chief Sustainability Officer, DuPont'.)
Summing up, are zero waste cities possible? The answer is clear: not only they are possible but in time they will become commonplace. The revenue streams associated with reducing the volumes of waste generated by cities and increasing the amount of waste that are reused or recycled are too great to be ignored.
This is a fact that city administrators have come to realize and a reality that companies in the waste management sector must now factor into their long terms investment plans.