At Yellowstone National Park, the clear soda cups and white utensils are not your typical cafe-counter garbage. Made of plant-based plastics, they dissolve magically when heated for more than a few minutes.
At Ecco, a popular restaurant in Atlanta, waiters no longer scrape food scraps into the trash bin. Uneaten morsels are dumped into 5-gallon pails and taken to a compost heap out back.
And at eight of its North American plants, Honda is recycling so diligently that the factories have gotten rid of their trash dumpsters altogether.
Across America, an anti-garbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.
The movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.
Though born of idealism, the zero-waste philosophy is now propelled by sobering realities, like the growing difficulty of securing permits for new landfills and an awareness that organic decay in landfills releases methane that helps warm the earth’s atmosphere.
“Nobody wants a landfill sited anywhere near them, including in rural areas,” said Jon D. Johnston, a materials-management branch chief for the Environmental Protection Agency who is helping to lead the zero-waste movement in the Southeast. “We’ve come to this realization that landfill is valuable and we can’t bury things that don’t need to be buried.”
Americans are still the undisputed champions of trash, dumping 4.6 pounds per person per day, according to the EPA’s most recent figures. More than half of that ends up in landfills or is incinerated.
But places like the island resort community of Nantucket offer a glimpse of the future. Running out of landfill space and worried about the cost of shipping trash 30 miles to the mainland, it moved to a strict trash policy more than a decade ago, said Jeffrey Willett, director of public works on the island.
The town, with the blessing of residents concerned about tax increases, mandates the recycling not only of commonly reprocessed items like aluminum, glass and paper but also of tires, batteries and household appliances.
Jim Lentowski, executive director of the nonprofit Nantucket Conservation Foundation and a year-round resident since 1971, said that sorting trash and delivering it to the local recycling and disposal complex had become a matter of course for most residents.
The complex also has a garage-like structure where residents can drop off books and clothing and other reusable items for others to take home.
The 100-car parking lot at the landfill is a lively meeting place for locals, Lentowski added. “Saturday morning during election season, politicians hang out there and hand out campaign buttons,” he said.