Thursday, August 1, 2013

Towards a progressive vision of Zero Waste

By Helen Spiegelman and George Spiegelman

Helen is co-founder and past President of Product Policy Institute.  Her husband George recently retired as professor from the University of British Columbia.

Two reports appeared this year that focus on “green job” opportunities fromnew approaches to waste management and prevention.

Closing the Loop: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs through Zero Waste in British Columbia is part of the Climate Justice Project, a 5-year research project led by the Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives BC Chapter and the University of British Columbia looking at the social and economic impacts of climate change and developing “innovative green policy solutions that are both effective and equitable.”

Transforming Trash in Urban America was produced by Partnership for Working Families, a national network of organizations that work for solutions to the nation’s economic and environmental problems.

The two reports are quite different in tone and perspective, but they both arise from a shared premise that social justice must be a key focus of environmental and economic policies, including waste management.

Key differences

Transforming Trash proposes solutions framed around so-called “Sustainable Recycling.” This encompasses “robust recycling programs” along with “high-road job quality” and economic development policies. The core issue for many of the groups that comprise Partnership for Working Families is the deindustrialization of America, the flight of jobs overseas, the shrinking middle class, and the marginalization of vulnerable groups. The paper suggests that a shift from the traditional burn-and-bury approach to waste management and adoption of the Sustainable Recycling approach would create new green job opportunities, especially for marginalized workers.

Closing the Loop proposes solutions to waste management that are aimed at addressing a broader economic, social and environmental problem: the high material and energy throughput of the global economy, which is causing a range of impacts including, notably, climate change. The Zero Waste approach proposed by Closing the Loop starts upstream of the waste management system, aiming to reduce the volume of materials that flow through the economy, hence reducing emissions, while maintaining a high quality of life. Since the shift would reduce environmental impacts, the jobs generated by the policies would be "green jobs".

Transforming Trash surveys 37 major American cities and identifies cities that the authors conclude have achieved “complete, intermediate and early-stages of progress.” They also describe policies and practices they have been adopted. These include municipal interventions in the waste industry through specific language in contracts with waste management companies and through regulations.

While Transforming Trash has a significant focus on raising the job quality within the collection and processing of municipal waste sector, there is less consideration of job opportunities in activities that would reduce material that is currently trashed, by reducing the amount of material that enters the waste management system. Nor does Transforming Trash relate how the new green jobs it proposes mesh, or don't mesh, with the broader economy.

Closing the Loop looks specifically at British Columbia. The focus is not just municipal and provincial waste management programs but at the economy as whole. The analysis includes material flows, GHG emissions, and the potential for reduction in emissions through different strategies.  The report includes a section on developing an agenda for green jobs drawing on statistics from other countries.

Closing the Loop acknowledges that British Columbia is currently largely a resource extraction/export economy and raises the possibility that resource recovery could become a new source of materials, with the possibility of establishing domestic manufacturing jobs related to materials recovery (in addition to jobs in reuse and repair).


In actuality, Transforming Trash has little to do with "transforming trash."  It's primarily about transforming the working and social conditions of people already working within the traditional trash sector.  ”Sustainable Recycling” would expand current activities in collection and processing of specific materials (those deemed “recyclable”) but, because the focus is entirely internal to the existing waste management process, there is nothing to drive a reduction in waste. In fact, entrenchment of green jobs in the current waste management system creates a dependency on the continued production of high quantities of energy-intensive materials needing to be managed. Such a narrowly defined Green Jobs agenda falls short of addressing the larger problem of the “deindustrialization” of America since it only considers jobs downstream of production.

Closing the Loop attempts to find policies not only to reduce the quantity of material used and discarded in the industrial system, but also to introduce new job opportunities in areas outside of traditional waste management. The report recommends exploring public policies that would diversify local economies and would include product maintenance, repair, and reuse of products and materials as well as locally based manufacturing to create markets for recovered materials. 

Are the reports contradictory?  No.  Both reports emphasize the need to ensure good working conditions.  But while Transforming Trash`s scope is limited to jobs within the traditional waste management sector, Closing the Loop argues the need to change the industrial system that produces so much waste in order to create new opportunities for working people in our local communities.

In the section on Green Jobs,  Closing the Loop doesn`t go as far as Transforming Trash in providing specific examples and mechanisms that municipal policy can provide to ensure equitable pay and job safety for workers in the waste management sector (for instance, the city of Seattle’s contracting system requires wage minimums and collective bargaining agreements for collection workers). Closing the Loop is more explicit about establishing links between material recovery and local manufacturing than is Transforming Trash.  In particular, Closing the Loop provides a potential agenda for waste prevention policies such as EPR requirements, mandatory warranties on products, cooperative purchasing – all aimed at moving the focus up the Pollution Prevention Hierarchy.

Sustainable reindustrialization

The Transforming Trash report calls for reforms in the handling of post-consumer materials, insisting they be recycled instead of trashed.  This approach will reduce some environmental impacts (land and water contamination from disposal facilities). However, treating waste as a “resource” creates a market for waste and expands a sector of the workforce that is economically dependent on waste.  

The Closing the Loop report calls for broader reforms to the industrial system: insisting on reductions in the flow of materials and energy.  This approach entails wide-ranging reforms:  imposing responsibilities on corporate entities, forcing them to warranty their products for longer periods, banning certain products outright, or requiring producers to ensure take-back services are available when a product is no longer serviceable.

There is little debate around the core issues underlying these two positions. There is general agreement that the global industrial system is excluding too many people from participation with disastrous social impacts to communities. There is also general agreement that the global industrial system is using too much “stuff” and that this is causing not only environmental impacts but social impacts.

It is worth asking if it is reasonable to expect a sustainable “reindustrialization” of America through jobs that depend on excessive material and energy flows. Further, is it reasonable to expect that a new economy can be built from the end of a pipe that carries products and packaging not designed to be recovered, or reused?  

The alternative presented by Closing the Loop is based on a reform of the industrial system to make it more conserving of materials and energy and more locally diversified, providing a range of good family-supporting jobs in every community. This alternative is challenging. It means reclaiming public control of a much broader range of economic activity than governments have at the current time. It means dispelling the neo-conservative economic myth of infinite resources that got us into trouble in the first place.

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