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Zero waste lessons from Boulder

People working at the sort line in a recycling facility
Eco-Cycle

This article is part of our Paradigm Shift series, produced by nonprofit PYXERA Global, on the diverse solutions driving the transition to a circular economy. See the full collection of stories and upcoming webinars with the authors here.

A quote by Plato hangs on the wall of the Boulder City (Colorado) Council office where I served as mayor until recently: "The City is what it is, because the people are who they are." Certainly, that has been the history of Boulder, where many ground-breaking environmental and sustainability policies — from open space taxes and visionary land use policies to first-of-a-kind carbon tax, trash tax and zero waste policies — have been promoted by local residents and nonprofits and codified into law by elected leaders.

In the embarrassing vacuum of national leadership in the United States, this essential role of cities has been necessarily elevated and amplified. Boulder and other similarly inclined municipalities are at the forefront leading on climate action and closely related issues of waste reduction, diversion and the pursuit of circularity.

Essential role of the public sector

While over 70 percent of U.S. cities directly manage their residential waste like other basic utilities, much of the Mountain West traditionally has taken a very hands-off approach. Residents and businesses throughout the region contract independently for trash and recycling services. The practice has contributed to abysmal recycling rates and excessive truck traffic with some cities having trucks from six to eight companies providing residential waste collection services. This increases the cost of road maintenance, leads to safety concerns and further, cities have little to no influence or control over the services provided.

In the embarrassing vacuum of national leadership in the U.S., this essential role of cities has been necessarily elevated and amplified.

Yet if we are to work within the Mountain West’s traditions to reach our zero waste goals, including the emissions associated with our consumption, the region’s public sector needs to emphatically embrace its role in shaping waste management policy and priorities. While for-profit companies can and do play an important implementation role, the people and their public officials need to direct traffic and ensure that the private sector delivers services and products that further the public good.

Boulder provides a good model of the marriage between tradition and sustainability. In contrast to communities with municipal control over waste hauling and landfill fee structures, state mandates or higher landfill tip fees that encourage zero waste investments, Boulder relies on a strong network of nonprofit, for-profit, governmental and community partnerships. In this context, the city of Boulder plays an integral role in facilitating a community vision around zero waste, establishing policy to create a level playing field for everyone and working with community partners to collaboratively build infrastructure and deliver strategic programs and services.

Zero waste lessons from Boulder

Home to more than 108,000 sustainability-inclined residents and 10,000 businesses, Boulder is painfully aware of our carbon and natural resource footprints. We know from the EPA that consumption emissions — from producing, using and disposing of our "stuff" and food — account for some 42 percent of U.S. emissions. Moreover, recent studies indicate that in U.S. cities such as Boulder, consumption emissions eclipse our electric, gas and transportation footprints.

1. Set and enforce community goals

Boulder’s vision is to become a zero waste community — first by reducing the waste we create and then reusing, recycling, and composting (diverting) most of what we throw away, with a goal of 85 percent diversion by 2025. Notably, these waste ambitions are closely tied to the city’s climate goals of an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 and are reflected in the city’s support of entrepreneurial efforts to create a local, closed-loop materials economy for recyclables and compost. Boulder currently diverts 57 percent of its waste. With some of the lowest landfill fees in the country — ranging from $20 to $33/ton, compared to the national average of $55/ton — everything we achieve is in the face of this enormous headwind where recycling and composting are at a financial disadvantage.

2. Engage in strategic partnerships

Boulder’s zero waste journey is inextricably tied to that of the 44-year-old Boulder-based nonprofit Eco-Cycle, of which I am lucky to be the executive director. The lessons learned begin in 1976 when Eco-Cycle volunteers in repurposed yellow school buses started collecting recyclables from neighborhoods — the beginning of residential curbside recycling in Boulder and one of the first 20 in the nation. This is a theme throughout Boulder’s history: grassroots activism and community engagement, which always has been the fuel driving the journey, often led by community nonprofits, in concert with progressive community leaders.

A key lesson from this experience is the importance of public ownership or at least control over zero waste facilities to ensure they remain focused on the public’s goals.

The city eventually instituted a trash tax and took over the recycling collections program, expanding it to include city-wide curbside collection in a partnership with Eco-Cycle and the local private hauling company Western Disposal, eventually transforming the municipally contracted curbside program into a regulated, private sector industry. Partnership is another key element of Boulder’s success — between nonprofits such as Eco-Cycle, the private sector (both local and national waste haulers) and local governments, as well as between Boulder County, Boulder and neighboring cities working to foster regional approaches. The city is explicit about not replicating or instigating things that the nonprofit or for-profit sectors can do better, and appreciates the need for support, funding, infrastructure and policy for those efforts.

3. Build public infrastructure

In 1994, Eco-Cycle advocated successfully for the need to fund and build a publicly owned Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), resulting in Boulder County voters approving a seven-year 0.10 percent sales tax to fund the construction and operation of recycling and composting facilities and programs. The Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC) opened in 2001 and processes some 56,000 tons per year. Eco-Cycle won the first contract to operate the facility (and since has re-won it), because of our recycling expertise but also because, as a social enterprise, our "mission profit" for operating the facility is returned to the community in the form of public education and advocacy efforts. We continue to use this facility to pioneer and test new sorting technologies and markets.

A key lesson from this experience is the importance of public ownership or at least control over zero waste facilities to ensure they remain focused on the public’s goals — for instance, to prevent your glass from ending up in a landfill when prices are low, or to support home-grown jobs and sustainability goals by marketing materials domestically versus to poorly regulated overseas markets.

Also in 2001, Eco-Cycle partnered with Boulder to open its first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM), a public drop-off center to address the 15 percent of the waste stream that is reusable or recyclable but not single-stream. This includes unusual materials such as electronics, toilets, mattresses, block foam and plastic bags. This is another example of the public sector stepping into the void in the marketplace to pursue a public goal, and in the process stimulating local entrepreneurs, businesses or other social enterprises to transform these material streams — now cleanly sorted and in predictable volumes — into local economic activity. To successfully scale this solution requires growing regional material markets with hub-and-spoke collection systems, to reach economies of scale for collection, processing and remanufacturing.

Recycling bins in Boulder, Colorado

4. Adopt zero waste policies

Boulder’s success lies in a mix of approaches, including adopting mandates when necessary. While Boulder made marked gains in residential diversion rates, after many years relying on voluntary measures, the commercial recycling rate was only 28 percent, prompting the Boulder City Council to adopt a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance (UZWO) in 2015. This UZWO requires all homeowners, property managers, businesses and public events to have recycling, composting and trash options — such that groups of three waste bins are visible wherever one goes in Boulder — and directs all recyclable materials to the publicly owned BCRC. Boulder is still only one of a handful of U.S. cities with a UZWO policy, yet it provides a powerful and essential driver for our zero waste efforts and provides important direction to the private sector.

5. Support education and community engagement

Strong public policy is necessary but not enough on its own. It is equally important to support contextually appropriate public education to drive behavior and culture change. We learned this early on. In 1979, after three years of efforts to get the community to adopt recycling habits, behavior change had stalled with less than 10 percent of the community participating in curbside recycling collections. Eco-Cycle had used all traditional PR approaches to increase participation with little result. It was not until a volunteer came up with the idea of creating a peer-to-peer education campaign that participation began to increase dramatically. Our Eco-Leader Network trains volunteers to be ambassadors for zero waste by becoming experts on all guidelines and programs. This program is 41 years old with more than 1,000 volunteers and remains key to the very clean and high-quality materials coming into the BCRC.

In 2005, Eco-Cycle launched the Green Star Schools program — funded by the city, county and donations — which became a nationally recognized education program that teaches thousands of students in Boulder County about zero waste and environmental protection and promotes zero waste practices at each school. Children become enthusiastic zero waste adopters, then go home to teach their parents — resulting in larger volumes and a much cleaner recycling stream at the BCRC, as well as building community buy-in and engagement in reaching sustainability goals.

Uniform guidelines and public outreach for all municipalities that use the BCRC provide further reinforcement, along with targeted outreach to businesses to help them implement the UZWO. Additionally, bolstered by the city’s UZWO, Eco-Cycle also provides public outreach at major public events, exposing over 300,000 visitors and residents each year to the principles of zero waste, recycling and composting.

We are advancing our culture of individual action to create systems change, where wasting and single-use products are no longer the norm and zero waste systems are the easier solution.

Looking forward

Boulder and Eco-Cycle are building upon our success in three ways — continuing the transition to a circular city, sharing best practices with communities around the country and driving change in Colorado.

We are advancing our culture of individual action to create systems change, where wasting and single-use products are no longer the norm and zero waste systems are the easier solution. The city recently completed a plan to become a circular city, an effort that includes measuring material flows instead of just diversion rates, with a goal of fostering innovation to capture and repurpose various waste streams.

Eco-Cycle has taken the many solutions forged with Boulder and Boulder County and packaged them in a 10-Year Community Zero Waste Roadmap to share with other communities — outlining the basic progression of zero waste infrastructure, policies and programs needed. This community model is founded on informing and engaging residents, business owners, employees and visitors on how to play their part through personal action. But ultimately, the goal of zero waste is to redesign our systems and resource use — from product design to disposal — to prevent resource depletion, conserve energy and mitigate climate change, among other actions, then capture our economic outputs to use them, instead of extracting virgin natural resources, to feed back into the local economy.

While Boulder’s zero waste story is still a work in progress, we are a bright light compared to the rest of Colorado, which, despite its green reputation, is one of the trashiest states at 17 percent diversion compared to the national average of 35 percent. With targeted advocacy and buoyed by the groundswell of public concern about plastics pollution, we are finally getting traction with the state legislature and our new governor. Working with other like-minded municipalities and nonprofits, Boulder and Eco-Cycle are promoting statewide legislation to bolster end markets, address organics management and ban single-use plastics. We also will continue to advocate for corporate producers and their associations to take more responsibility for the products they put forth into the world. Critical to our success, however, will continue to be rallying the people and convincing the public sector to adopt the rules necessary to create our circular materials future.

To learn more from the leaders of the circular economy transition, visit PYXERA Global.

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