According to advocates, zero waste was a common practice during earlier stages of human history.

Then as centuries passed and technology advanced, people became more wasteful, and zero waste turned into a radical concept, they say.

Just 10 years ago, the concept of zero waste was seldom raised, because many thought it lacked credibility, said Recycle Away President Michael Alexander.

Plus, using products once and burying the resulting waste in landfills or burning it in waste-to-energy plants has been cheaper and easier.

“What we’re doing with our waste today is actually radical,” Alexander said. “The fact that we only manage to recover 30% of it for recycling and that we squander the rest of it in landfills and waste-to-energy facilities, that’s actually radical. We’re the only species that doesn’t already practice zero waste. All the other species on the planet know what zero waste is. They perform it every day. It’s about time humans in this century figure out how they can be like every other species and practice zero waste.”

Alexander spoke during a session, “Where do we go from here? Reaching zero waste,” during MassRecycle’s 2012 Recycling & Organics Conference & Trade Show in Boxborough, Mass., last month.

Alexander’s company designs recycling containers and provides consulting services for starting recycling programs.

Although the last 10% percent of the waste stream, composed primarily of personal hygiene products and composite packaging, is a challenging segment to retrieve, he said there’s “plenty of low-hanging fruit” that communities could collect to boost the diversion rate to 50% or even 75%. Construction and demolition debris, food waste and textiles are some of the main waste streams to target, he said.

Alexander said mandatory recycling rules for all businesses and residents are necessary. Fines for noncompliance or a pay-as-you-throw incentives could help reduce waste.

He also said downsizing waste receptacles while increasing the volume of recycling containers at the curb would boost diversion, along with educational programs.

“Once people understand the amount of savings that can be achieved in a community, not so much by achieving an absolute level of zero, but at least getting on the path to zero, it becomes an idea that makes a lot of sense,” he said.

While cities jump on the zero waste bandwagon, San Francisco continues to set the bar after instituting mandatory composting and recycling in October 2009.

One major point people should understand about San Francisco’s mandatory composting and recycling programs is that it didn’t happen overnight, instead requiring nearly two decades of planning and extensive political support, Alexander said.

The system has resulted in a 77% recovery rate, with a zero-waste goal for 2020.

“That is a microcosm of what we really should be doing with our waste, which is to manage it as nature intended,” he said. “Not bury it in a big, giant, foul hole in the ground or burn it in a burning facility, but actually put back into the cycle.”

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