The last few days of the international Zero Waste convention in San Francisco and the East Bay area have been very hectic with much debate and learning taking place. It has become evident that this part of the world is very justified in having such high standards in its expectations regarding the future of zero waste initiatives.
On Thursday, there was much heated debate in Oakland City Hall, led by Gary Liss, on defining a Zero Waste standard for business certification.
It was clear that Zero Waste certification is already being carried out on some major international businesses and is currently being managed by a range of organisations, including UL, NSF-ISR and the US Zero Waste Business Council who, in consultation with the Zero Waste International Alliance, are preparing an American standard for Zero Waste for submission to ANSI. Even though the current programmes are working towards high standards for Zero Waste (without landfilling or burning), it was debated that they aren't yet high enough and there could be a range of loop holes. Also there needs to be clarity of a standard for businesses that have very minimal wasted resources.
Pigs & Peacocks
Following the day's debate at City Hall, it was back on tour again, this time for dinner at Marin Sanitary Service, a family-run waste management company that serves Marin County in the East Bay area.
I've now been to a wide range of MRFs but I've this is the first time I've ever visited a site that keeps pigs or even peacocks, not to mention the chickens, which feature as a popular and unexpected item on their educational tours.
The philosophy of Zero Waste is at the heart of the company's activities and I love this poster where our host Devi Peri outlined how once you've harvested the low-hanging fruit, it is possible to incorporate other services to a point where the only things left are Extended Producer Responsibility, including redesign.
On Friday we visited a mattress recycling company in Oakland, which is now processing 150,000 mattresses per year with only 10% of its waste ending up in landfill.
Mattress Recycling is a great example of how recycling is progressing but if manufacturers designed products for better deconstruction at end-of-life, waste reduction achievements could be even better.
The company's landfill stats may appear to be minimum but there still needs to be a push for products such as the one below, which cannot be disassembled, to be redesigned for disassembly.
However, for the majority that can be separated, the company is able to deconstruct the mattresses into good quality components, including metal that is sold onto metal dealers, wood that can be used in mulch, compost or energy production and cotton & fabrics that are sent onto the textile markets.
Dual Stream Bins & Buy Back
Having stayed in Berkeley this week, it was interesting to have a peek behind the scenes at Berkeley Recycling, the city's waste management company that serves residents and businesses locally.
One of the key points I drew out of the tour was the success of the company's dual stream collection, i.e. collecting recycling in split wheelie bins.
This allows for better quality of materials as plastic & metal packaging can be kept separate from paper and cardboard, which means easier and more efficient sorting at the MRF and maintains their ability to create one of the cleanest streams of recycling the the Bay Area. Currently Berkeley Recycling's MRF maintains just a residual rate of only 2-3% and thanks to the quality of its recycling streams doesn't experience any rejections.
It was also interesting to see how there are different service levels of participation to engage the public. Residents have a range of options for recycling, which include the kerbside service through the dual-streamed bins and a front-end recycling centre at the MRF.
The bins shown above cater for all the kerbside materials plus hard plastic, but as you can see below there is also a Buy Back service, where visitors can get paid separately for bottles, cans, paper and scrap aluminium, incentivising those who want to earn some extra dollars either for themselves or a community initiative.
I was intrigued to know the amount of materials collected through these different service levels. The figures are as follows:
Bring back: 100 tons per month
Buy back: 250 tons per month
Kerbside: 650 tons per month
It was also interesting to note that 'Buy back' services are an integral part of recycling services, not just in Berkeley but across California.
Innovations in Reuse
Throughout the week I have seen many examples of how Reuse has been an important feature in this area's waste hierarchy but it was the visit to El Cerrito's recycling centre which really demonstrated how this can be made not only visible to the public but also integral to a local culture.
The El Cerrito site underwent a major redesign in 2012 and has fast become one of most attractive recycling sites I have ever seen. Its popularity amongst local residents is such that it restricts visitors to two hours onsite. Two hours? Most people I know are in and out of a recycling centre in just 20 minutes.
The attraction of El Cerrito is that it is not just a recycling centre, it is also an exchange centre, featuring an onsite book 'store', where you can pick up items of interest for free and those who are registered can also pick out various items from some of their deposit bins. As well as managing a range of recycling streams on site, it also supports local community reuse organisations such as Urban Ore and the Goodwill charity.
For anyone interested in modelling reuse and community exchange facilities into their own recycling centres, it really is worth looking closely at the El Cerrito model and more information can be found on its website.
Party Time at Urban Ore
On the topic of reuse, one of the most amazing centres in this part of California... or indeed anywhere else that I've had the pleasure to visit is Urban Ore, which is a huge reuse and building materials exchange operation in Berkeley. It is also an active contributor to the Zero Waste programme and its website is really worth a visit for anyone who want to push activities further up the waste hierarchy in their own localities.
Urban Ore was also the venue for the end-of-week party and with the opportunity to browse around the store, I couldn't think of a better place to be.
This place is cool with a capital C!
It's not even afraid of reselling electricals and electronics. The onus is simply on any interested purchasers to test them out onsite first!
But when I say that Urban Ore is huge! It really is! Even this photo of 'party central' doesn't do it justice. And in fact, the outside is even larger than the inside.
The Urban Ore party really was a fitting venue for the end-of-week celebrations. It has been a great study tour of some of the best practice Zero Waste practices that are taking place in the world right now and if there are any local innovators, great thinkers and aspirational leaders in the UK's waste sector who want to be connected up to what I've seen this week, I would be delighted to make those connections.
I know waste management and working towards Zero Waste to conserve resources isn't easy, but it starts with rethinking the impossible and realising its potential towards a new reality. We should never be scared of these levels of innovation but should be excited about the technological, economic and social opportunities that they bring.
What I've witnessed this week have been communities that care about making the impossible actually possible, forging ahead with their vision and working together with City officials, service providers and strategists who are not daunted by moving away from old models of thinking.
This is something that is worth celebrating big time! So thank you San Francisco, leading the way with your 80% diversion rate, and to all the organisations from the Bay Area that shared their experiences this week. I feel very privileged to have been here with many of my International friends.
Folk, I think it's now time to watch this space. Meanwhile, here's another photo from the coolest party I've been to in a long time... and most probably ever!
California rocks! And so does its path to Zero Waste!