Moving Northeast Wisconsin Toward Zero Waste

The Clean Water Action Council researched zero waste principles in the summer of 2012 after some Green Bay City Council members stated that a trash-to-energy incinerator was needed to reduce the amount of trash going into landfills. We began promoting zero waste as a safe alternative to incineration with our Summer 2012 Newsletter, we provided copies of the newsletter to the council members, and we helped found the Northeast Wisconsin Zero Waste Coalition. The Green Bay City Council eventually voted to rescind the permit that was issued for the construction of the incinerator.

Since then, we have given numerous presentations on zero waste and we cosponsored a zero waste expert, Dr. Paul Connett, and his week of presentations in Northeast Wisconsin in September of 2012

We believe that if city and county officials in northeast Wisconsin embraced zero waste principles, landfill reduction and other positive environmental effects would be achieved.

Zero waste is a philosophy and design principle for the 21st century. It makes a shift from traditional waste management, where the focus was keeping recyclables out of the trash, to material management, where trash is what remains after we reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost. It aims to eliminate, rather than manage waste. Zero waste maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and promotes the manufacturing of products that are made to be reused, repaired, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. The use of landfills is greatly reduced through zero waste.

Moving toward zero waste includes eliminating organic materials going to a landfill.  Removing materials such as food waste, food contaminated paper products, and untreated wood immediately begins to reduce the release of methane gas, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.  Methane is created by placing organic materials into landfills that will then decompose under anaerobic conditions.  Further reduction in the amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that is released to the atmosphere is obtained when reuse and recycling is done locally to create a regional source of raw materials. Eliminating organics also reduces the moisture content of landfill material. This reduces the amount of contaminated leachate which must be carefully collected and treated.

Zero waste programs and strategies help develop green jobs. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance's report Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, “On a per-ton basis, sorting and processing recyclables alone sustains ten times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.” When local or state governments create a timeline for materials that must be recycle or reused, it encourages entrepreneurship and the creation of businesses that can profit from using discarded materials in their manufacturing process.

Communities on the road to zero waste usually begin by educating businesses and citizens about the need for change. Master plans must be developed with input from all the stakeholders. Community leaders must also shift tax dollars and tax incentives to investment in recycling and reuse infrastructure rather than for landfills and incinerators. Requirements need to be placed on producers to create both product and packaging that facilitate reuse, recovery, recycling, or composting. When the “end of use burden” shifts from consumer to manufacturer, design changes will favor the environment rather than the dump.

Successful communities and businesses benefit from having a target year to reach a zero waste goal, which is often around 90% of unwanted material diverted from landfills and incineration.  The master plan includes policies, programs, and implementation steps. Communities often begin with such actions as curbside single stream recycling, food waste collection, and trash cart rates based on the size of the cart. Placing a surcharge on material that is land filled further encourages diversion.

When a zero waste master plan timetable is published, it gives time for businesses to develop services around upcoming changes. For example, when a date is published for institutional food waste to be prohibited in landfills, it encourages the creation of businesses that would provide collection and composting of the material at a profit. When fast food restaurants are put on notice that food packaging must be made of compostable paper, manufacturers develop a new product to meet the changing demand. As landfill tipping fees become consistent with the true cost of land filling, the profitability of these new recycling services and products greatly increases which then helps communities move along the path towards zero waste.


© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311