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    Getting to Zero

    by Annie Leonard

    Annie_leonardRecycling has come a long way, but has a long way to go. Sorting our paper, cans and bottles has become second nature for good green-leaning citizens, and many communities have expanded curbside recycling programs to include food and other compostables. But nationwide, Americans only recycle about a third of the 250 million tons of municipal solid waste we produce every year.

    That’s right: even though “recycling” has been a household word for decades now, two-thirds of our waste still goes to the dump or incinerator. Obviously we have to do better, but how much better can we do? Can we cut it to 50 percent? Twenty percent? How about aiming for zero?

    Zero Waste might sound impossible to achieve, but many communities are well on their way. The New York Times reports that in the U.S., the Zero Waste movement is strongest on the West Coast. San Francisco keeps 78 percent of its waste from the dump, and is on track to hit 90 percent by 2020. Portland and Seattle are on the same path. In a new report, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) tells inspiring stories – OK, inspiring to a trash geek like me – of communities from Spain to Taiwan that have embraced the Zero Waste agenda.

    GAIA defines Zero Waste as doing all we can to prevent waste in the first place, then ensuring that discarded materials are safely and sustainably returned to nature or manufacturing. To get there we have to look beyond recycling our paper, glass and cans. Take, for example, clothes.

    Old clothes and other textiles are a big part of the waste stream. Each American throws away 68 pounds of clothing and textiles a year. In Recycling Reconsidered, Samantha MacBride says we throw away about the same amount of textiles as we do glass. But because glass gets a lot of attention and is picked up at the curb, we recycle about twice much glass as textiles.

    We used to be excellent textile recyclers. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, nearly all textiles were recycled into cleaning rags, batting or to make paper. Now clothing that’s reached the end of its useable life usually ends up in the trash. Each of us can do our part – donating or reselling used clothes, for example – but to change the big picture we have to push the clothing manufacturers to step up.

    I’m all for personal responsibility, but we can’t reach Zero Waste through individual action alone. To really close the loop on recycling Stuff, manufacturers need to design products to be more durable and more recyclable in the first place, and then support infrastructure for reuse and recycling for when we’re done with the Stuff.

    Patagonia, glad to say, is leading the way on this. Patagonia facilitates the repair and reuse of its clothing first and then, when it’s really at the end of its life, will take it back for recycling. They’ll use it to make some other product or figure out another way to recycle it. Let’s hope their example will inspire other clothing manufacturers.  It’s another step on the road to Zero Waste.

    Annie Leonard has dedicated nearly two decades to investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues. Her first book – The Story of Stuff was published by Free Press in March 2010.

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    The Common Threads Initiative is a partnership between Patagonia, our customers and eBay to make, buy and use clothes more sustainably, with the ultimate aim of keeping the clothes we sell from ever reaching the landfill. Take the pledge and tell a friend. When you do, you can opt in to have Annie's next editorial delivered right to your inbox
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