By Nicole Capelle
When I found out that Orange County had a solid waste master plan to achieve zero waste, I felt, as many fellow UNC students do, a sense of pride in our progressive efforts to combat climate change. We were doing things right, right?
Eager to read through, my bubble quickly burst when I clicked on the link, only to be met with a half-page of the plan’s goals whose outlined purpose was to…develop a plan? As I skimmed the page, words I’ve read countless times before in climate strategy articles stuck out to me: develop, integrate, identify.
The cognizance that we did not in fact have a realized zero waste plan was confirmed by those words. In situations like these I am often reminded of the famous “the thinker vs the doer” cartoon. How many times have climate policy talks started with the phrase “We hope to achieve…, “We are planning XYZ…”, “by 2050…”? These words give an anticlimactic feel to whatever follows as hopes for action drift away.
As a community, it is true that we aim to recycle responsibly and advocate for repurposing efforts like composting. At UNC’s campus, we are no strangers to seeing “compost, landfill, recycle” bins. This fosters hope among residents even if these practices may not be correctly executed 100% of the time. We want to execute change. However, in order to prevent from succumbing to tricky waste regulations and insufficient efforts, Orange County needs to step up as well. Zero waste can be achieved; we just need to manage our waste better and adopt financial incentives for sustainable practices.
Each step of the waste cycle – prevention (of wasteful production), production use (sustainable), and disposal, must be backed by sound public policy. Something like a credit system. Incentives work. They ease barriers of entry, which is necessary if we are to begin to work through trial and error. To help with the process, government-backed checklists should provide guidance and structure on what actionable measures would be rewarded with credits. This could be anything from incorporating curriculums into schools and newspapers to updating solid waste reuse directories for businesses and residents, or establishing spill prevention and response procedures.
Once played out, feedback loops can be used to further the maintenance associated with trial and error. Another bonus? The use of the credit system can begin to expand to incorporate sustainable policies within building codes and waste generation. Some might say that we as a county don’t have the financial resources or manpower to implement such a system. However, we are merely redirecting what waste and materials we already use. The point is not just to limit waste, but to use it efficiently. Furthermore, sustainability efforts have consistently been overlooked when allocating budgets.
During Earth Week at UNC, I had the pleasure of talking to various organizations working towards sustainability at Carolina. Goals included avoiding eliminating synthetic herbicide use, increasing biodiversity, and implementing recycling curriculums in class. One group shared that less than a third of one percent of the school’s budget goes to truly sustainable practices. The financial means are there. Is it crazy for students to want their school to invest in a healthier environment? Not just for climate change, but for the safety of the thousands who call the campus their home.
Without a proper framework, without policies to back it up, Orange County’s solid waste plan will remain that — a plan. Waiting for somebody to take actionable measures through that first leap of faith. Maryland successfully implemented its own credit system over twenty years ago, passing their waste diversion goal. Taking that step forward saved them millions in disposal fees and services as waste generation decreased. This leap of faith we must take has already been tried and proven. The groundwork is there; we just need to reach it.
These kind of policies help reframe how we view waste. The responsibility that zero waste entails derives from every step of trash’s life cycle, demanding attention from all kinds of stakeholders. As the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection says, “a pile of ‘trash’ represents community and economic opportunity including jobs and new products from raw materials”. Waste is a valuable resource if you know how to use it.
There is no singular perfect policy to support the framework behind zero waste management systems. That doesn’t change the imperative nature behind its implementation. Actionable steps and incentivized goals help communities go down the learning curve that is climate policy. One push of the domino that is effort is all it takes for action, then policies, then groundwork, and research to follow suit.
Nicole Capelle is a first-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been conducting research for a policy class on the global environment in the 21st century.
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