VERIFY: How Realistic Is Zero Waste?

Verify: How realistic is zero waste?

No more trash in landfills. Cities across America are pushing programs to accomplish that. It's called "zero waste." 

But is it possible to stop making trash?

There's no question that recycling is good for the earth. According to an estimate by the National Resources Defense Council, getting to zero waste in the U.S. would cut greenhouse gases as much as taking 50 million cars off the road.

"We need to make a concerted effort to recycle," says Rick Gavos. Hes a Verify viewer in Dallas and hardcore recycler. He's also fascinated by the idea of zero waste, so I took him along to be my guest reporter.

"What would you like to know when this is all over?" I asked Rick, sitting on his front stoop before we left.

"I'd like to know if it is making a difference," he answers.

THE LANDFILL

Let us start by looking at all the stuff Rick throws away. It ends up at the Dallas landfill, one of the largest municipal landfills in America.

"Rick, can you describe the smell here?" I ask him.

"It's really not as bad as I thought it might be," he says.

There's so much trash streaming into the landfill it looks, to us, like we are nowhere close to zero waste.

Kelly High is the director of sanitation for the city of Dallas. He's giving us a tour of the landfill.

"There's going to be a lot of cardboard and boxes. Lot of paper that's in there. Lot of plastic bottles," Kelly says.

"Pallets, I see pallets," Rick says.

"That's stuff that doesn't have to come here. It's recyclable?" I ask Kelly.

"It's easily recyclable," Kelly says.

Some stuff can never be recycled. But in Dallas, they believe 85 percent of trash can eventually be kept out from the landfill. Getting to that number is how Dallas defines zero waste.

Right now the city is stuck at 20 percent.

"Is that moving fast enough?" Rick asks Kelly.

"It could move quicker," Kelly says.

"Give yourself a grade toward getting to zero waste," I prompt Kelly.

"That's a tough question. I will give the grade to me. I'm going to give myself a C because I know there is greater opportunity," Kelly says.

After that interview, Rick reflects.

"I think there's more to the story here, but that worries me... if he's only giving himself a C," Rick says.

THE BUSINESS OF RECYCLING

In order to get to zero waste, trash has to stop going to the landfill and instead go to a recycling facility. In Dallas, there's a brand new $20 million recycling facility that's a partnership between the City of Dallas and a private European recycling company called FCC.

This is the most modernized plant in the U.S., if not the world, says Rudy Castillo with FCC. It's super high-tech, but to get a feel for how recycling works, Rick and I are going low-tech.

We're sorting about 30 pounds of material. The machines here sort 60,000 pounds in an hour. It's a little haphazard.

"I don't know, we probably look like a comedy team from 'I love Lucy,'" Rick says about our hand-sorting experience.

Most people don't think of it this way, but recycling is a business. The aluminum, plastic, and paper that comes out the back of the FCC plant is a commodity that gets sold on the open market.

In Dallas, they've been able to make that profitable. But the recycling industry, as a whole, is struggling.

"In terms of the monetary [aspect], it's not working in the USA," says Dr. Sahadat Hoassain, the director of the Solid Waste Institute for Sustainability at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"The business of recycling isn't working?" I ask.

"No. Absolutely no," Dr. Hossain says. "Anyone want to come and tell me that I'm wrong and they want to debate with me, I am open to anybody."

Why's he saying that?

Dr. Hoassain ran numbers for several cities across Texas. It costs about $20 to $50 to dump a ton of trash. To recycle a ton, it costs $150 to $200. 

Recycling can be four to five times more expensive.

"Making recycling a profitable business is going to be very, very difficult," Hossain says.

"Because it's just cheaper to put it in the landfill?" I ask.

"It's cheaper to put it in the landfill," he answers.

GOVERNMENT REGULATION

So if economics aren't going to drive more recycling, the other option is government regulation.

We're back with the City of Dallas at their zero waste office. Rick and I are learning that cities like San Francisco will fine you for failing to recycle.

"Do you foresee bans on certain items? Legislation that's going to change what we have to do?" Rick asks Kelly.

"To get to those long range goals, those kinds of things will need to be in place, just to be honest," Kelly says.

"Getting fined for putting cardboard in a trash can is never going to fly in Texas," I say.

"How do we want to incentivize certain actions without being heavy-handed about it?" Kelly responds.

CONCLUSION

So is it possible to stop making trash? Well, if you agree that zero waste is what we're shooting for, then that means:

  • Recycling needs to make money.
  • The government needs to make people do it.

So what's Rick thinking now after he's learned so much about zero waste?

"I don't think we're going to get there. But I think everything we can do to obtain those goals is something we should all do," Rick says.

Don't take my word for it, take his.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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