“Zero waste” is a buzzy concept that can be applied to almost anything. With a few shopping tweaks, you can have a zero waste beauty routine, or strive towards a zero waste kitchen. But can an entire city become zero waste?
Missoula thinks it can. On August 1, the city council adopted into committee a “Zero by Fifty” program that’s been gestating since 2016. The ambitious plan aims to eliminate 90 percent of the city’s wastestream by 2050, thereby meeting the Zero Waste International Alliance definition of zero waste.
“We understand that the goal is aspirational, and that is on purpose,” Chase Jones, the energy conservation and climate action coordinator for Missoula, says in an interview with Green Matters. “Without a bold intention and bold goals, it’s even harder to move the needle. It really puts us in a position to get working right away.”
Missoula isn’t the first city to attempt this feat. Fort Collins, Boulder, Austin, San Francisco, and Seattle all have zero waste programs underway, whose deadlines loom even closer. Missoula has studied their efforts in developing its Zero by Fifty plan, which includes 42 steps of action on the way to zero waste.
Those actions target every aspect of Missoula life, from public schools to demolition crews. They’re broken down according to how long they will take to execute, the diversion potential, and upstream impacts. So what’s on the list? In the short-term, the city plans to bring recycling and compost collection to every household and business, install “zero waste stations” in public parks and spaces, and offer incentives to developers and contractors who reduce, reuse, and recycle. Later into the program, Missoula will move to ban compost and E-waste from landfills outright, as well as implement a mandatory retailer take-back policy.
This plan will mean big changes for the roughly 73,000 people who live in Missoula, which is why Jones says education is key. Before residents can participate in the program, they have to understand what zero waste — and composting, and single-use disposables, and cradle to grave — even means. “With education and understanding, we hope to make that change in people’s minds,” Jones says. “That waste is not inevitable and seeing it as a resource instead.”
The education campaign will also, according to Jones, include initiatives with the local nonprofit Home ReSource aimed at giving citizens the skills to reuse household items destined for the dump. As the public is absorbing all this information, the city will expand access to recycling and compost, so residents will be ready to use the new “zero waste station” bins in the park or downtown sidewalks.
But before any of that officially gets underway, Jones says they need a full-time staffer on the job, some baseline research into the city’s waste, and one more crucial meeting. On Monday, the full city council will decide whether to adopt Zero by Fifty via consent agenda, a list of items the council can simultaneously adopt in one motion. Items land on the consent agenda when they have a unanimous vote in committee, so it’s very unlikely a council member will request to remove Zero by Fifty from the agenda. But once this hurdle is cleared, the plan will officially be set in motion.
"We know that 2050 will be here soon and that this will take a concerted effort and time to develop," Jones says. "So we celebrated for a few minutes after the [committee] meeting and then immediately got to work. This is going to take absolutely everyone…. It’s a big framework and it’s obviously put forth by the city and we’re proud to be the leaders of it, but it’s a plan informed and developed with the community, with citizens, and it’s intended to spark innovation and spark ingenuity. We’re excited to see all of the things that it does motivate, so that we can work on this goal and implement action together."