Zero Waste in North America

December 12, 2012

Zero waste. The idea of reducing waste generation and increasing recycling is the goal of most progressive communities today. Many cities have established zero waste timelines and targets, so we checked out the landscape and came up with a list of North American cities with the most promising zero waste programs (in no particular order).

Seattle, Washington: The city adopted zero waste as a guiding principle all the way back in 1998 and it has since banned wasteful, hard-to-recycle products such as single-use plastic bags and the yellow pages. In 2005, Seattle Public Utilities began a program called “Wasteless in Seattle,” which enforces mandatory recycling in an effort to reach a 60 percent diversion rate.  The city also recently piloted “One Less Truck” with 800 single-family homes.

Portland, Oregon: One of the greenest cities in the US has a big focus on waste diversion. Portland decreased the volume of trash going to the landfill by 44% in early 2012 by picking up recycling (which includes food scraps and other organic waste) more often than unsorted garbage. The city hopes the road to zero waste can save it money over the long term: The number of garbage trucking routes has already decreased by 600 per month with recycling saving as much as $40 per ton in disposal costs versus sending the same materials to the landfill.

Boulder, Colorado: The home of the University of Colorado enacted a zero waste resolution in 2006 with the goal of reaching 85 percent diversion by 2017. The master plan for reaching this goal includes a steady rollout of various diversion programs. Commercial and residential food waste collection, single stream recycling and a ban on electronic scrap began in 2007. This year, minimum recycling levels for multi-family domiciles and fines for electronics disposal were instituted. By 2017, the city hopes to reach its 85 percent goal through mandatory source separation and the creation of a “Mixed Waste Construction and Demolition Debris Recycling Center.”

Austin, Texas: The Texas capital’s goal of 90 percent diversion by 2040 may not seem impressive next to some of the objectives other cities have established, but Austin is using a methodical approach to zero waste that will allow the city to meet (or possibly exceed) its goal. Through practices like the recently-instituted Universal Recycling Ordinance, which expands recycling requirements to more properties in the city each year, Austin is systematically moving toward zero waste. Austin also places a strong emphasis on incentives, especially in organics diversion – for example, this summer we profiled the SSO Superheroes Austin Resource Recovery, who offer composting classes and rebates to residents who purchase home composting systems.

San Francisco, California: Long a North American leader in green policies and technologies, San Francisco may have the most ambitious zero waste goal of any city: achieving true zero waste by 2020. According to the city’s website, that means “sending nothing to landfill or incineration. We create policies that reduce waste, and increase access to recycling and composting. SF Environment is doing everything we can to make it happen.” Whether it reaches its goal on deadline or not, San Francisco uses a three-pronged approach that may ultimately prove to be the key to success: prevent waste, increase recycling and composting and establish protocols to safely handle toxic products.

Skytrain ad in Metro Vancouver

Vancouver, British Columbia: This progressive metro area has already hit a diversion rate of 55 percent! With the goal of increasing the amount of trash diverted from landfills to 70 percent by 2015, Vancouver is well on its way. Among Metro Vancouver’s programs to reach zero waste are a 2015 ban on organic materials in landfills, bylaws that encourage recycling and tools – such as Metro Vancouver Recycles – that make it easier for residents and businesses to divert waste materials. The area also encourages the best practice of reducing all waste (including recyclable materials) as evidenced by advertisements in a local skytrain terminal.

Which city will get to zero waste first? You be the judge! Tell us in the comments who we missed and who you think has the best program. Want to jump start a similar program in your community? Check out the Zero Waste Alliance website for guides and zero waste mapping tools.


  1. Jerry says:

    I’d want to examine the list of US cities that are at the bottom when it comes to waste diversion and recycling.

  2. kenith says:

    Hi Zero waste in North america is very difficult to achive. In order to achieve this target we should encourage the power recycling companies. Electronic Recycling center should be increased to get this huge target.

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