Getting to a Zero Waste World, One City at a Time

Catalina Díaz’s workday starts at 6pm. She and her fellow recyclers at El Amanecer de los Cartoneros, a recycling cooperative in Buenos Aires, Argentina, chat and joke with one another as the light falls and another evening of Zero Waste work begins. 

Across the world in the city of Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S., Jonny Santos, a worker-owner at the Composting Cooperative CERO, arrives at the beloved Chinese-American restaurant Mei Mei at 7am sharp to pick up food scraps, which will eventually end up back in the soil as nutrient-rich compost. 

And in the bustling city of Tacloban in the Philippines, waste pickers exchange warm greetings of “maupay nga aga” or “good morning” with residents as their pushcarts rattle down narrow streets to collect separated organics, recyclables and residuals from each household.

What do these three cities–scattered across different parts of the world–have in common? They are all committed to achieving Zero Waste. Zero Waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The plan encompasses waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits, and industrial redesign. But just as importantly, zero waste is a revolution in the way we take, make, and waste. 

The movement to transition towards zero waste has continued to grow as the urgency of the world’s waste problems have become harder and harder to ignore. According to a recent World Bank report, the world generates 2.01 billion tons of waste annually, and unless significant action is taken, waste is projected to increase by 70% to 3.4 billion tons by 2050. Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into our oceans, and scientists are finding that plastic doesn’t just pollute our oceans, it pollutes our bodies with microplastics in our food, air and drinking water. Despite this alarming fact, the plastic industry is planning to quadruple plastic production by 2050.

Waste is projected to increase by 70% to 3.4 billion tons by 2050 #breakfreefromplastic Click To Tweet

 Meanwhile, waste is being burned in incinerators around the world, causing emissions of greenhouse gases, heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants that are poisoning surrounding communitiesmost of which are lower income, communities of color, and neighborhoods in the global south. It is clear that for the sake of our children’s future, we can no longer continue with “business-as-usual.” 

Fortunately, there are cities around the world that are already taking action to achieve Zero Waste. 400 municipalities have committed to Zero Waste in Europe alone, and cities across Europe and Asia are modeling Zero Waste solutions that reduce waste by up to 80%! In this site, you’ll find stories and case studies from cities at the forefront of the movement to Zero Waste, and the GAIA members working behind the scenes to make it possible. 

Through pioneering Zero Waste systems, these cities saved money, significantly reduced the amount of waste they generated, and created sustainable jobs.

Materials Recovery Facility in Tacloban, PH. ©Rommel Cabrera/GAIA

The city of Ljubljana, Slovenia has managed to cut their waste by 59% in just ten years, reducing waste management costs to one of the lowest in the EU. Tacloban rose from the wreckage of Typhoon Haiyan to build one of the most robust Zero Waste models in the region, increasing waste collection from 30% to 100% while reducing waste by 31%, and saving the city approximately USD 413,000 per year in the process. In Boston, CERO has formed a network of small businesses to compost 11,867,122 pounds of food waste since its founding in 2012, getting the city closer to its Zero Waste goal. 

RCERO sorting system, Ljubljana © Tjasa Frida – Fridizia/Zero Waste Europe

A successful Zero Waste model isn’t just about infrastructure; social justice plays a central role. In Sasolburg, South Africa and Buenos Aires, Argentina, informal recyclers worked in dangerous conditions and were often harassed by law enforcement, despite providing a vital service to the community. These workers banded together to form powerful cooperatives that fought–and eventually won– the right to be recognized formally as city workers, with good wages and protections. CERO founders in Boston noticed that although there was a rising interest and investment in sustainability, little to none of that investment was directed towards marginalized communities. By creating a worker cooperative by and for lower income communities and communities of color, CERO became a model of both sustainability and equity.

But as hard as communities work to reduce their waste, there are some things that just don’t fit into a Zero Waste model. By studying what’s left over after waste is composted and recycled, cities are pinpointing the types of products and packaging that cause the most problems, and the companies behind them. Armed with this information, cities around the world are enacting policies that ban these items and hold producers responsible. In this way, cities can lead industry to find innovative ways to reduce or redesign their products and packaging. 

Far from being a futuristic ideal, Zero Waste is happening now. In small towns and big cities, in communities rich and poor, in the global North and South, innovative plans in place today are making real progress toward the goal of Zero Waste. Will your city join the movement?