Make Ithaca a Zero Waste City

January 11, 2023 – This op-ed written written for The Ithaca Times’ Readers’ Write issue themed “My Big Idea” by our member, Jessica.

Almost any time there is something thrown in the trash, there is an opportunity for things to be different. Zero waste systems are a versatile collection of strategies that maximize the reuse of materials, divert waste material to beneficial uses, and minimize production of disposable goods and packaging.

Hundreds of cities around the world have adopted zero waste models, which bring measurable benefits to:

  • climate, through lower emissions
  • public health, through lowered exposure to toxic chemicals
  • natural resources, through less extraction and pollution
  • local economies, through more money kept in the community, new jobs supporting material reuse, and essential goods redistributed to those in need

According to a 2022 report by global zero waste coalition GAIA, at least 70% of global emissions come from the material economy: the manufacture, transport, use, and disposal of goods. Zero waste actions are often the easiest way to bring down emissions rapidly and cheaply.

One of the most crucial zero waste strategies is to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics. Plastic pollutes at every stage of its lifecycle, and only 5-6% of plastic waste is recycled in the US. It is not difficult to imagine our city with less plastic—perhaps you even remember it, since half of the plastic in existence today was manufactured in the last 15 years.

Ithaca already has many successful waste reduction programs. I admire the work of organizations like Finger Lakes ReUse and Friendship Donations Network, redistributing materials and food that would otherwise become waste. I’m inspired by community-led initiatives like Zero Waste Ithaca’s Bring Your Own Container program: nearly 100 area restaurants committed to reducing packaging through BYO. I’ve seen how local Buy Nothing and Gift Economy groups build community resiliency by connecting people to their neighbors.

Here are some additional steps we could take to reduce waste—solutions with immediate impact that build upon efforts already underway.

  • Support Ithaca City School District’s recent initiatives to switch to reusables in their cafeterias in collaboration with Zero Waste Ithaca.
  • Support Meals on Wheels programs in switching to reusables.
  • Go zero waste at festivals, Commons concerts, and other public events. We have a great model with Ithaca Farmers Market’s Dish Truck and BYO initiatives. Hosting no-waste festivals would be good PR for Ithaca among the many visitors who come to town for these events.
  • Divert usable items from dumpsters during college move-out. As a simple first step, colleges can set up tents near dumpsters where students can leave items that are still good. This way, people can take them without fear of being ticketed for trespassing or dumpster diving.
  • Get containers back to producers for reuse. Think maple syrup bottles, beer bottles, can carriers, etc. It used to be common practice for beverage distributors to use reusable glass containers, and still is in countries such as Germany.
  • Assist local dry cleaners in eliminating plastic bags, providing them only on request, or switching to reusable bags.
  • Build water refill stations to lay the groundwork for a shift away from bottled water.
  • Consider a city-wide Deposit Return System of reusable containers shared among restaurants with drop-off spots and delivery systems. The new commercial kitchen the City is discussing would make deposit return possible.
  • Develop a robust local composting infrastructure, which can reduce methane emissions from landfills by 62%. Consider a “Composting Incentive Act” similar to Washington DC, where the city officially supports and promotes home composting as a law.
  • Pass a “Skip the Stuff” bill making single-use items like silverware and condiments by-request rather than automatically provided for takeout and delivery. Pass bans on certain single-use plastic. Pass a right-to-repair bill without the loopholes of the state’s.
  • Incentivize businesses, organizations, or municipal initiatives focused on offering alternatives to single-use packaging. Supporting these efforts keeps money in the community that would otherwise go to large corporations outside our city. Think packaging-free stores, cloth diaper services, tailors and menders, repair centers, CSAs, etc.
  • Support Finger Lakes ReUse’s effort for building deconstruction in place of traditional demolition, keeping reusable materials out of landfills.

The U.S. plastic industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to surpass those of the coal industry by 2030. The City of Ithaca has a stated pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Rethinking our relationship to solid wastes must be part of those efforts, as circular economy strategies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 39 to 48%.

Ithacans have the opportunity to safeguard human health, protect our natural resources, reduce our contribution to climate change, and invest in new green jobs by pushing to make Ithaca a zero waste city.

Jessica Franken


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