Transitioning to a Zero Waste Society

Few industries have changed as little in the past hundred years as the waste industry.  A century ago, waste was picked up, put in a horse-drawn cart and taken away for disposal.  Today, they have replaced the horse-drawn cart with a truck.  

Our current recycling system, built in a piecemeal fashion, started to take shape in the 1970s but has made only modest improvements over the past fifty years.  Strangely the of recycling,, seems like itwas predicting recycling’s eventual death  If one wanted to add to recycling’s obituary they would say, the lack of a uniform collection system (which causes confusion and contamination), the cost of transporting low value recyclables and no incentive for stakeholdersto change were all causes of recycling’s demise.  

The pandemic offers us time to reflect upon aspects of our daily life we have taken for granted, or ignored, prior to COVID 19.  Reimagining waste and recycling in a way that has long-term benefits for society opens the door to building a ZeroWaste Society(ZWS).  eing

A ZWS can achieve economies-of-scale and operating efficiencies,by combining the waste and recyclable materials from multiple communities, lowering the cost of transportation, reducing processing costs and increasing market opportunities. Building a ZWS requires a public-private partnership (P3) providing private sector resources and investment local governments don’t have.  

The Recycling Partnership’s recent report shows U.S. curbside recycling is currently capturing only 32 percent of the 37.4 million tons of commodities.  This capture rate, while disappointing, doesn’t include the largest opportunity for recycling organics, which on average represents close to 50% of municipal solid waste going to landfills.

A Zero Waste Society utilizes a hub-and-spoke infrastructure, with one or more hubs.  A hub can be a specific campus or zone whose area can be defined roughly as falling within a 100-mile radius.  The key to enacting a ZWS is for local governments controlling the wasteand recycling stream to change from a lineitem-expense model to a resource management approach.  Coordination and communication among stakeholders will be key to designing, implementing, and maintaining a ZWS infrastructure.  

Chicago is a perfect candidate to be a super hub in a ZeroWaste Society.  Chicago’s industrial base combined with large populationand corresponding volumes of waste, access to transportation, markets for recycled materials, universities, government laboratories and business community make it perfectly positioned to transition the region to a ZWS.

A multiplehub infrastructure to optimize rural resources would work well by the states of Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, joining forces as the HeartlandZWS, which would encompass rural and urban areas.

The Heartland ZWS has both the population, volume of waste, and industrial base to gain economies-of-scale and optimize these resources.  

The State of California and it’s progressive approach to waste and recycling, might be the perfect candidate to form a ZWS.  The state government has enacted numerous programs and laws, diverting materials away from landfills while developing markets for value added materials.  California’s transition to a ZWS would be fast.  

The large waste firms who own landfills will fight a transition to a ZWS.  But these are for-profit firms and if change is inevitable, they will look at their assets and adjust.  Not everything can be recycled, so the use of landfills in a ZWS will continue.  

There isn’t a roadmap, per se, for setting up a ZWS, but many policies, best practices and technologies are already in use that can be woven into initial plans.  States are enacting legislation that reduces waste going to landfills while incentivizing stakeholders by offering grants and loans to achieve many of the goals of a ZWS.  New technologies that reduce contamination and convert materials are coming to market.  Corporations are investing in solutions forrecycling materials they use or produce for packaging.  The 10 states with bottle deposit laws consistently have higher rates of recycling, producing recyclables with less contamination and greater value.

Cities and local governments that control waste, must transition to a resource management approach to achieve a ZWS.  A ZWS uses a flexible hub-and-spoke infrastructure that is adaptable to each region’s unique geography, population, resources and stakeholders.

Coordination among stakeholders and leveraging private sector resources through a P3 will be key to success.  Building blocks that can be woven into a ZWS already exist in public policies, best practices, technologies, sustainable capital, etc.. Our current economic circumstances has started discussions about implementing a sustainable infrastructure bill, which is the perfect platform for transitioning to a ZeroWaste Society.


Globally recognized expert in the waste and recycling sector with a deep knowledge of the efficiencies, technologies, and human behavior that drive sustainable economic growth. With a 30-year track record serving multiple waste and recycling firms, private equity investors, foundations, NGOs and advocacy groups, he has developed innovative programs that reduce cost, expand markets, create new opportunities and increase revenues throughout North America, the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia. Peter is currently the Managing Director of ZeroWaste Global LLC (ZWG), an international management-consulting firm focused on zero waste solutions; a partner at Scarab Technology, LLC, a disabled veteran-owned waste service and recycling management consultancy focused on federal and state governments; and the Managing Partner at Fiber Innovation Technologies, the leader in residual management for pulp and paper mills. He holds a B.S. and M.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California and is proficient in Spanish, having lived in South America.

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