The call came in early February 2011, an unexpected invitation on short notice to participate in the United Nations Intercessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving towards Zero Waste, in Tokyo. I was honored and intrigued; yet my first inclination was to say no. I was too busy, there was too much involved in preparing a presentation, organizing international travel, and catching up once I returned to work. But after pausing to consider, a calmer, more rational voice prevailed, and I accepted the invitation as an opportunity to share experiences among the 40 nations represented. This would be my first visit to Japan. And as so often happens when we give of ourselves, I would receive much more than I put forth in my efforts to participate.
While exploring the context of the conference theme of building partnerships and moving toward zero waste, my remarks took on new relevance. I was reminded that we all could benefit from stepping back and taking time to reassess our communities and the need for services we may or may not provide. This is a good framework to then take stock of our organizational goals and where we would like our businesses to be within the next year, five years, or 20 years.
Japan has put in place a series of aggressive programs to reduce, reuse, and recycle, as laid out in “Japan’s 3R Initiatives,” published by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. The initiatives plan also includes provisions to convert resources (i.e., waste) to energy. Their systematic approach has been brought about over the last 20 to 40 years through the methodical development of strong policies and laws, backed by aggressive federal and state public education and outreach efforts. Finally, their utilization of conversion technologies, such as gasification, appears to be heavily subsidized by the government. This is a laudable effort for a heavily populated island nation where land and resources are scarce. But I found myself wondering, can any of us bring such technology to our own backyard?
The entirety of my experience in the country, including a couple of detours to try out the mass transit system, helped me answer that question. The conference was held in a large hotel in downtown Tokyo. I had heard a lot about Tokyo’s system of trains and subways and their efficiency in moving large numbers of people. My trip to the Shinjuku Station at 7:45 one weekday morning at the peak of rush hour was an almost overwhelming experience. The Shinjuku Station is the most heavily traveled in Tokyo-and the world-processing some 1.5 million riders per day.
The floors in the subway, in the train stations, and in the cars themselves were exceptionally clean, perhaps not surprising since any eating or drinking is prohibited, except in designated areas. Directions are clearly posted, even for English-speaking foreigners, and are followed. People flow with precision through the station to their next subway car and final destination. The point is, whether for transportation or to reduce, reuse, and recycle, rules in Japan are made and followed for the good of society. And along with the 3R’s, the Japanese government has decided to use certain conversion technologies, and the people have accepted that. The government has put policies in place along with public subsidies and energy pricing structures to accommodate the programs.
This observation reinforced my belief that local solutions to local problems will ultimately be the most successful in any of our communities. Back at home, our district may be best known locally for the Last Chance Mercantile (LCM), a reuse store located at the landfill. This reuse program, built on salvaged goods and donated items, has grown incrementally and steadily over the last 20 years to become what it is today. The Last Chance program supplies an ever-changing array of goods to the community, employs 10 people, and generates over $700,000 per year in revenues. It works here, and a handful of other communities across the US have similar programs. Yet the question we hear most often when out-of-town visitors stop by (often brought by local residents who take pride in showing it off) is, “the LCM is such a great idea; why don’t we have one in our community?”
The LCM “reuse program” represents a significant step above recycling in our overall waste management hierarchy. To make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, emerging studies reinforce the fact that “reuse” should be a high priority in all of our communities. Reuse and with it “repair” are fundamental components of a zero-waste strategy. Upon my return to the US, I was reminded that while the district does have a reuse program, it does not have a stated zero-waste policy. We subsequently conducted some education and outreach on the concept of “zero waste” for our Board and the local business community. While the board appreciated the holistic approach that zero waste planning entails, they were not ready in this uncertain economic environment to establish a zero waste goal for the district.
In contrast to Japan’s experience with conversion technology, the 20-year history of our reuse program offers a lesson for our future. There is no doubt that the consumer nations need to embrace new ways for utilizing “waste” as a “resource” as we move to a more sustainable business model. To this end the district is considering what form of conversion technology will best fit in our community. The incremental step we are likely to take will be in the form of a pilot project of modest means and relatively low cost.
So, in Japan, where programs have followed policies, our local experience has been different. Diversion levels currently range between 55% and 65%, with the depressed economy helping to boost the numbers. Again this legislative session, the State of California is contemplating increasing the diversion mandate from 50% to 75%, and commercial recycling may become “mandatory” under the requirements of AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act. Ultimately, for our district, state policy will likely be the driving force behind new local diversion initiatives. Nonetheless, this is an ideal time for all of us to be revisiting community needs, evaluating our policies and programs and putting the plans in place to guide our operations toward a future with zero waste.
And finally, our thoughts and best wishes for recovery are with the good people of Japan as they work to recover from the devastating impacts of the massive earthquake and tsunami earlier this year.