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Honegger: The authoritarian impulse behind ‘zero waste’ mandates

The recent Boulder County composting fiasco originated from a dangerous policy called “zero waste.”  The county was trying to turn 40 acres of public open space into an industrial-scale composting plant against the wishes of those living nearby. Because this facility would be able to compost everything from dead animals, sewage sludge, construction debris and human waste there were obvious concerns about the odor. Promises of the county being able to mitigate “most of the odor” were not enough for neighbors of the proposed plant. These residents filed a lawsuit, forcing Boulder County to withdraw the scheme. But the county announced they are still taking measures to move forward with a compost facility somewhere in the county by hiring a “strategic advisor.”

What led to Boulder County pursuing this bizarre plan?  “The County insists the project is about zero waste,” reports CBS4.   Zero waste is another progressive promise that sounds great but in reality is just another tool to advance the Californication of Colorado.

A ‘feel-good fantasy’

Zero Waste International Alliance provides a definition which boils down to the conservation of all resources.  Many cities and counties in Colorado adopt similar definitions but with different deadlines. Boulder has their zero waste goal set for 2025, Fort Collins has theirs at 2030 and the City and County of Broomfield has recently set their goal for 2035. Boulder already has a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance forcing residents to pay for composting and recycling bins, and Aspen is now considering mandating compost bins as well. In a recent public workshop put on by the Broomfield Sustainability Committee, I was told by a zero waste consultant hired by the city that they are also drafting an ordinance for mandating recycling and composting. Ecocycle, the county owned operator of the Boulder County recycling center, currently has a campaign to get Denver to sign onto a zero waste goal also.

Sadly, “zero waste” is nothing more than a feel-good fantasy. Why? The best way to define zero waste is to prevent any waste from going into a landfill. Zero Waste activists hate landfills. An alternative would be to incinerate trash and generate electricity. But Zero Waste activists hate that also. Therefore, zero waste will never be achieved. This explains why, when a local government in Colorado passes a zero waste goal, they can’t point to a single city that has come close to zero waste. Neglecting to reference any real-life benchmarks should be a huge red flag.

Fudging the numbers in San Francisco

The city that has made the greatest progress towards a zero waste future is San Franciso.   They belong to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, composed of 90 of the world’s most eco-conscious cities, “representing 650 million people and one quarter of the global economy.” Of the C40 Group, San Franciso is the best example of zero waste in action. In 2012, the mayor stated that the city was diverting 80% of all resources. This was an explosive claim that spread throughout the media. However, Samantha MacBride, a researcher in the field of discard studies points out; “The 80% has become a touchstone and a symbol. Yet it is, at least in part, a product of a certain approach to counting and classification that mobilizes the heaviest fractions of urban discards to tip the scales…if we remove this massive quantity of sand, earth, rock, rubble, and sludge, it is probable that San Francisco is keeping 60% of its residential and commercial trash out of landfills…”

The mayor had seriously manipulated his numbers. This is because most cities don’t count “sewage sludge and construction debris” in their diversion rate. It is now accepted that while San Francisco is closer to zero waste than any other city, 60% was their real diversion rate in 2012 and this has now dropped to 51%.

The timeline that San Franciso gave itself was to achieve zero waste by 2020. Even with 60 paid personnel on the Waste Zero team providing education and outreach services, the goal is now described as “elusive,” despite mandatory recycling and composting laws.

Authoritarian impulses

The city has struggled so much in making additional progress that they convened a civil grand jury in 2019 to investigate the challenges they face. They have now improved their immediate goal to reduce their current landfill disposal rate by 50% by 2030.  Why does this matter to you? Because the policies that zero waste cities use to improve their waste diversion rate will continue to become more authoritarian. And these policies continue to be used as ideas by local governments in Colorado.

The next step the landfill haters tell us to take is to pass extended producer responsibility laws. These laws force fees on companies that produce paper products and other packaging to subsidize the recycling of those products, as it’s not economically profitable to recycle them without government subsidies. In Colorado, Representative Alex Valdez sponsored a bill that was signed into law (HB21-1162) that was originally intended to prepare Colorado for this “extended producer responsibility model.”  A legislator who co-sponsored the bill called it a “great first step.”  This is the key problem with the goal of zero waste.  The examples I have provided of government cracking down are only the “first step.”

If San Francisco has only achieved a 50% goal towards zero waste why do Colorado cities and counties continue to use the term? It is because it provides them a blank check to do whatever they want in their ridiculous hate of landfills. Governments that have a zero waste mandate will always pursue more control over your trash and the cost of disposal will always rise. It’s time to push back against zero waste mandates. If you look close enough, these policies are nothing but garbage.

Karl Honegger, a Broomfield resident, is a board member of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers.

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