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Winter 2008 Issue of the Finger Lake Sierran

Is New York Ready for Zero Waste?

If you aren't for Zero Waste, just how much waste are you for?

by Robin De Lill Stroman, Finger Lakes Group Zero Waste Committee Chair

The current practice of landfilling mixed and unsorted waste is neither environmentally responsible nor sustainable. Zero Waste works to eliminate waste at the source, involving manufacturer responsibility in a concept known as EPR or Extended Producer Responsibility. It follows the example from nature— where there is no waste—and seeks to recycle all materials back into nature in a way that protects human health and the environment.

New Yorkers have an opportunity to make the case for Zero Waste in New York. For the first time in over a decade, we have a chance to influence the state's solid waste policy. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is revising the state's inadequate Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), and outdated Solid Waste Regulations (Part 360) which govern landfill operations in the state. The Department's own website states "New York's recycling rate has leveled off, and may even have dropped, for the better part of the last decade. The most recent SWMP Update was issued in 1999/2000. No recycling or waste disposal data has been officially released since then." America's waste stream is by far the largest per capita in the world. Ninety-four percent of the materials used in the manufacture of the average US product are thrown away before the product even reaches the shelves. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that in 2001 America's waste generation amounted to 4.4 pounds per person per day and that total waste generation was about 230 million tons with a dismal 32% recycling rate.

The Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1976 required all states to develop individual plans to maximize waste reduction and recycling by a 1980 deadline. That law has not been enforced since 1987 when the Reagan administration defunded it. But the law is still in effect and the EPA could be sued in federal court for not enforcing it. In the meantime, national recycling rates have remained flat or worsened (just like in New York) while the number of tons of waste destined for landfill disposal has risen dramatically.

The Finger Lakes Region of New York hosts a disproportionately high number of landfills relative to our population. In fact, 98% of New York's commercial landfill space is located in NYSDEC Regions 8 and 9. Region 8 covers the greater Rochester and Finger Lakes Regions, encompassing the counties of Chemung, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Schuyler, Steuben, Wayne, and Yates.

It is well-documented that all landfills present serious threats to human health and the environment, including pollution of air and groundwater. More than just toxic and ugly reminders of our inability to deal with waste wisely, landfills contain countless resources that could have been put to better use. Proponents of the concept of Zero Waste argue that we should be managing resources, not waste.

Further, the garbage we bury is tied to global warming due in part to the amount of fossil fuels used to produce, transport, and dispose of it, and the methane gas emitted from landfill cells which contain organic items like food and paper mixed with other solid waste. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the US, accounting for 34% of all methane emissions. As a starting point, the Sierra Club's COOL campaign (Compostable Organics Out of Landfills—by 2012) would prevent landfill-produced methane emissions and build healthier soils. Taking it further, practicing Zero Waste would address the climate change crisis on numerous fronts.

At first glance Zero Waste seems like an abstract, maybe even unattainable notion. But it is now being embraced, practiced, and accomplished in many corners of the world. In the US, cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Oakland, and states like Minnesota, Oregon, and California are striving for Zero Waste. Companies like Xerox, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard are finding that in addition to polishing their green image with consumers, adhering to Zero Waste principles results in significant cost savings.

If you'd like to see New York get involved in the Zero Waste movement, consider joining the Citizens Environmental Coalition's "Zero Waste Campaign." Join a statewide coalition of concerned citizens and groups to press the state to incorporate 21st Century Zero Waste principles into its solid waste policies by emailing Sabrina Wells at swells at Or call Barbara Warren, Executive Director of CEC at (518)462-5527 and find out how to get involved.

The national Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee is urging folks to press your local governments to become part of the historic shift from "welfare for waste" to producer responsibility. To learn more about the Club's work on Zero Waste issues and how to bring Zero Waste to your community, visit