The Long, Hard Road to Becoming a Zero-Waste City


In the late 1800s, many large cities were facing a problem of epic proportions. The transportation technology of the day was the horse-drawn carriage, and with it came lots of waste—manure, to be specific. 

In fact, in 1894, The Times of London published an article indicating that within the next 50 years all of London’s streets would be buried under nine feet of manure. 

Four years later, in New York City, leaders from around the globe convened for the first-ever international urban planning conference. The horse manure crisis topped their list of issues to discuss. Although the conference was scheduled for 10 days, they cut it short after just three. The conclusion? There was no foreseeable solution to the problem. As long as horses were the primary method of transportation, urban streets were to be covered in their malodorous byproduct.

Cities were, of course, saved from this uncomely fate by the proliferation of the automobile in the early 1900s. Although modern cities have come a long way since the so-called “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894,” waste management is still a top concern for residents and government officials alike.

Many major cities have established “zero waste” goals, meaning they will send nothing to landfills. While this may seem like a pipe dream in a world full of consumer packaged goods and takeout containers, it may not be too far off.

A More Bucolic Bay Area

In the United States, San Francisco has already made great progress towards its zero-waste vision. In 1989, the state of California passed a mandate that each city had to decrease the amount of trash sent for landfill or incineration by 50 percent by the year 2000. San Francisco achieved that goal, but didn’t want to stop there. They now divert 80 to 90 percent of trash that would have otherwise gone straight to landfills.

The city has aggressively rolled out recycling, composting and organic waste programs. It has also taken other measures, such as banning the use of plastic bags by local retailers. The final push for the city will be to encourage residents to avoid waste altogether—using reusable containers or purchasing goods in recyclable or compostable containers.

Freshkills Park.jpg

Image courtesy of the City of New York

Reclaiming Land from Landfills

As cities reduce their waste, landfills across the globe have been repurposed for public parks, recreation areas or real estate development. In New York City’s Staten Island, the Fresh Kills Landfill once covered 2,200 acres and held the infamous title of the world’s largest landfill—and the world’s largest man-made structure. It was officially closed in March 2001.

Since then, the land has been reclaimed for use as a public park. When it opens, it will be nearly three times larger than Central Park and the largest new park opened in New York City since the 19th century. The park will open in phases, between now and 2036.

A Long Road Ahead

Although major cities such as New York, Vancouver and London have programs targeting aggressive waste reduction—with an ultimate goal of zero waste—cities in the developing world face a longer road ahead. In cases like the Ghazipur landfill outside of New Delhi, there is so much waste coming in that it is almost unfathomable to pause to think about methods for waste reduction. Despite a dumping ban from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee in 2009 at the landfill, no alternate site has been identified and the trash keeps piling in as a matter of necessity.

In cities where infrastructure issues exist, it’s not as easy as increasing recycling and reducing consumption. One solution may be “energy recovery” in landfills, where non-recyclable plastics can be converted to energy or heat. There are currently 86 “energy recovery” facilities in the United States that are showing promising results. If this gains widespread adoption, this could fuel cities’ recoveries from waste management issues.

With new technology, perhaps 100 years down the road, landfill waste, like streets full of horse manure, could be a relic of the past.



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