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May 2006
Reaching for Zero
The Satya Interview with Timothy J.W. Logan

Imagine a New York City with no waste, where everything could be reused or reclaimed. What would that look like? That’s the vision for the NYC Zero Waste campaign, which has set a 20-year goal to achieve zero waste in our trash-heavy city by 2024. This campaign grew from NYC’s environmental justice movement and in coalition with community and environmental organizations, including the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, Consumers Union, NYPIRG, NYC Waste Prevention Coalition and Environmental Advocates of NY.

As an international movement, zero waste initially started in New Zealand and spread to Australia, where over 50 percent of municipalities have adopted zero waste goals. In the U.S., Seattle, Boulder, Oakland and San Francisco are among a few cities also pursuing this initiative. In fact, the entire state of California has set a zero waste goal. All of these plans involve waste prevention, reuse, recycling and composting programs, and will require means to enact them through legislation, regulation, research, education and enforcement.

Timothy J.W. Logan, the lead organizer for the NYC Zero Waste campaign, believes we should all be reaching for zero waste and asks “if you’re not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?” Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Timothy Logan about what reaching for zero is all about.

How did the Zero Waste campaign come to be in NYC?
Well, several things happened in 2002. The NYC Waste Prevention Coalition came up with an alternative to suspending recycling called Why Waste the Future, outlining a number of savings. On the statewide level, a bill colloquially called the Bigger Better Bottle Bill was developed and introduced. The campaign started with the idea that nickels put in for bottle deposits by the public that are not reclaimed, should go back to the public rather than to the industry. There is well over $100 million statewide, and probably $75 million or more in NYC not being claimed annually. So the idea within that legislation was to recoup those monies and put them directly toward waste prevention, reuse, recycling and composting programs, which make up the programming basis for zero waste.

Also, the mayor introduced his plan to adopt a community plan put together by the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods to reuse all the marine transfer stations, which are equitably sited throughout the city [instead of the truck-based transfer stations situated primarily in low-income communities]. In the fall of 2002, the environmental justice movement met in Washington, DC for the second national People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. At that summit, while the folks from NYC were touting the victory they had hypothetically won getting rid of land-based transfer stations, they ran into people from other parts of the country that had landfills and incinerators that said, ‘Great, what you are telling us is that you’ve reduced some truck traffic where you are, but all you are really doing is sending your garbage to us’—more low-income communities of color. From there, the idea of looking for a better long-term solution started to come together with the idea of developing a People’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

The Zero Waste campaign was actually initiated in September of 2003 with a handful of organizations. They said, let’s get everybody to the table and talk about what we want. What’s the dream? Out came the Zero Waste campaign.

Can you briefly walk us through the steps we would need to take in the next 20 years to achieve this?
The basic idea is recovery of products and packaging, which are synthetic, and recovery of organics. Organics ideally decompose and are put back to enrich the soil. In fact, that was what the NY Department of Sanitation was initially created for over 100 years ago.

Recovery of synthetic items and figuring out who is responsible for it takes a little bit more effort. For extremely toxic items like electronics, we have a really good proposal on the table for manufacturers to take responsibility for the end of life of their products outlined in Intro 104, the E-waste Extended Producer Responsibility Bill.

We also have reuse programs and businesses that are being developed, like the Build it Green reuse store in Astoria, the Green Workers’ Cooperatives in the South Bronx and the Reuse Alliance.

Some packaging may best be recovered through Department of Sanitation collection programs and could be processed locally in a materials recovery center. We need to start having more businesses make use of these materials. In a city created upon its harbor and manufacturing, there’s a need to get back to our roots. Let’s start doing more manufacturing, but let’s do it in a sensible manner.

There is a huge amount of residential waste, but also commercial waste from restaurants and businesses. How do you get restaurants and corporations involved in this plan?
You make rules across the board. It’s a level playing field if everybody has to play by the same rules.

There could be disposable bans, or recovery requirements or fees and taxes on the disposal of certain items. You can create incentives where it is less expensive for their recycling stream rather than their disposal stream. Same thing for organics. You can make things more difficult. If they have recyclable metal, glass and plastic, paper and organics, those can be in streams that get picked up regularly and other items that are non-recoverable could be picked up monthly, so people have a storage issue. One way to deal with storage is not having anything that fits in that category. This can create change in what products are sold and how they are packaged.

Presumably NYC could have an influence on manufacturers?
If you take a look at how many people are living and working in NYC, I think we can make a big difference. But, I don’t think we should rely solely upon NYC, and we need to make some demands on New York State. We are the third largest state in the country and can move mountains in terms of policy. California has already come out with a goal for zero waste. So between us, we can go a long way. We’re not talking about tomorrow. We can’t snap our fingers and the waste goes away. But 20 years is entirely reasonable.

In the 1960s the president said, we want to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade—everybody thought that was impossible, but they did it. Now if they can put a man on the moon in 10 years, we should be able to figure out a way to deal with waste in 20.

Are there plans to work with local farmers to reuse our organic waste?
The system hasn’t been completely set up. But the Union Square Greenmarket already has organics recovery done by the Lower East Side Ecology Center who are selling compost at the market as well.

A number of carting companies within Brooklyn have started to set up routes for organics collection. They are taking them to a composting venue called Green Farms in Nassau County. There is also composting going on in New Jersey that a number of Manhattan carters are going to.

Can you talk a bit more about the marine transfer stations and how they play a role in the zero waste plan?
The marine transfer stations are being set up now to export waste, but could be used for intra city movement of organics and recyclables, so we could keep a vast amount of trucks off the road. You could move organics out by barge or get them back on the market locally for use within the city.

There are also opportunities to move organics out by using the Hunts Point Terminal market, where about 80 percent of the produce that comes into the region gets split up for distribution. There is no reason why compost couldn’t be moved back to where that produce initially comes from—the farms and agricultural areas.

How do you get the message out to the public?
It is difficult. We’ve had to resort largely to the development of community-based organizations and working on issues within governments, asking the administration as well as the City Council to adopt many of the ideas and concepts that we’ve put forward.

I’m finding that people working on global warming issues are starting to broaden their horizons beyond energy, to recognize that 10 percent of global greenhouse gases are released annually from waste. A lot of that is methane, which can otherwise be recoverable and substituted for natural gas.

You mention coalition building with the climate change folks. What other types of groups do you see embracing zero waste?
It certainly makes sense with consumer organizations. The Consumer Federation of America, which is the umbrella organization for the consumer movement, fully supports Extended Producer Responsibility policy, which is basically recovery of products and packaging.

The Sierra Club has adopted zero waste under their environmental justice programming. ZERI, the Zero Emission Research Institute, has started recognizing eliminating emissions from manufacturing is the same interest you would have in zero waste from a solid waste perspective.

I’m a dad with five year-old twins and we talk about zero waste in this house all the time. When my son says, ‘I’m for zero waste,’ it’s the same way people say ‘I’m for no wars’—which is yet another connection. If you want to talk about an industry that creates more waste than any other, it is the war industry, which promotes demolition rather than deconstruction and massively disperses toxics. The only recycling I’ve seen them do is taking nuclear waste and making bullets out of it.

To some extent, the peace and justice movement also is beginning to recognize that zero waste has a place within their broader context.

Can you talk more about how you incorporate zero waste in your home?
Boy, I wish I was better than I am. [Laughs.] We do our best to consider how things are being packaged, bring our own bags when we do our grocery shopping and put recyclables back into the recycling stream.

My kids are dressed about 80 percent in hand-me-downs. We, in turn, make sure they get passed on to friends, family or other networks and do the same with toys. Things don’t get thrown out. We take them somewhere where they will get reused.

We’ve done composting in the past, but we are not currently. My intention is to do vermicomposting indoors. I personally do not eat meat. That’s a big opportunity people could take—the biggest problem with most composting programs usually deals with meat and bones. So if people want to embrace zero waste, and if they also choose to become vegetarian, they make their lives easier when it comes to composting.

To learn more about the NYC Zero Waste campaign, read their model plan Reaching for Zero at To get involved contact campaign coordinator David Weinberg at

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