The End of Garbage

>Many cities have at least a minimal curbside recycling program. But in Boulder, Colorado, putting out your newspapers and bottles is only the beginning. Eric Lombardi, Executive Director of Boulder's EcoCycle, one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the U.S., is a passionate activist who practices what he preaches. As part of EcoCycle's commitment to turn Boulder into a "Zero Waste Community," Lombardi collects Styrofoam, fire extinguishers, and plastic lawn furniture at EcoCycle's Center for Hard-to-Recycle Material, or CHaRM.

Lombardi spoke with The Atlantic about the art of recycling agitation, the no-free-lunch realities of garbage, and how other cities can get to "zero waste or darn close to it."

lombardi.jpgHow did curbside recycling evolve into zero-waste recycling in Boulder?

We've been around 34 years--we were one of the first curbside recycling programs in the U.S. In 1987 the big corporations moved in and wiped out 95 percent of the mission-driven recyclers who, like EcoCycle, were dedicated to resource conservation. 

But EcoCycle hung in there during this mainstreaming period, and in '97 or so we realized that there was much more that we could be recycling. We looked in garbage cans and realized that hey, there's a market for 80-90 percent of this stuff! Recycling is only the beginning! What about composting, for instance? That's half the stuff in our trash.

So a group of us started pushing for a greatly expanded dialog about resource conservation--to explore how almost everything we throw away could be used, either by industry or agriculture.

Government and mainstream recyclers laughed at us when we talked about "zero waste." But we've gone through the classic Gandhi thing where first they laugh at you, then ignore you, then get mad at you, and then join you. In fact, the National Trash Hauling Industry just announced their support for zero waste after they'd been bucking against us for 15 years.

What exactly does the phrase "zero waste" mean?

With big players moving into the recycling movement, it's important to talk about this. A zero-waste community, according to the International Zero-Waste Alliance--which I helped found--recovers 90 percent of its discards for recycling, compost, and reuse. And you treat and landfill the last 10%--you don't burn it. Treating is very important. Otherwise you create methane with live biological material.

EcoCycle realized we needed to make our hometown community of Boulder a model for zero waste. CHaRM was able to take things to the next level, to answer the question, What about all that other stuff? What about the tennis shoes and the Styrofoam and all the computers and all this other stuff that was still going into the landfill? We went to the city and argued that they should let us compete against the big waste companies. The city agreed. We're pretty darn cheap--cheaper than average landfill costs--and we're way cleaner and greener. The community loves the service.

It sounds like you have a good relationship with the city of Boulder. How can that be a model for other cities in the U.S., even cities that are bigger and don't have Boulder's college demographic?

EcoCycle is a private, community-change organization. We shake the tree. If the dialog is good between the community organization and the local government, then you can do what's called an inside-outside change game. They're on the inside, we're on the outside. They're not against what we want, they just can't go as fast as we'd like to go. It may look confrontational sometimes, but what's really going on is that you're having coffee with the mayor, telling him, "We're going to march on you Tuesday night with 400 angry people, but don't take it personally. We're just demanding change--in fact, we're creating cover for you to make that change."

Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson played that inside-outside change game to get civil rights done. They'd call each other all the time, saying, "OK, I'm gonna do this now. It's going to make you look a little bad, but don't get upset." It's a strategy! That's how we change the world for the better.

The second thing that we've done is to negotiate a contract--I call it a social enterprise contract--to run the publicly owned recycling facility here. The contract says that if EcoCycle meets three of the most important criteria for a recycling facility--

1) you operate as cheaply as you can

2) you sell the recyclables for as much as you can

Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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