Beyond Recycling: Getting to 'Zero Waste' Recycling newspaper and plastic can only go so far toward achieving a "zero waste" world, a recycling activist says. The next step, he says, is getting industry and government to work together to make going greener more profitable.

Beyond Recycling: Getting to 'Zero Waste'

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Next, let's clean up one more point in this week's discussion on garbage. All week we focused on cleaning out the garage, junking computers or disposing plastic bags. We conclude by meeting a man who has been into recycling ever since his first job at his father's company.

In the 1960s, Eric Lombardi's father worked with old style computers that ran with punch cards.

ERIC LOMBARDI (Recycling activist): We used to go to the local paper recycler with the old punch cards and he used to pay my dad for the old cards. And I looked at that and went, I thought that was trash. And my dad's like, Oh no, they make paper out of paper.

INSKEEP: These days Eric Lombardi directs a nonprofit, Eco-Cycle. The company name gives you an idea what they do in Boulder, Colorado, which leads to the question of what he recycles.

Mr. LOMBARDI: In my community we have got a very comprehensive approach to what we call zero waste or darn-near. To try and recover darn-near everything in your trash can because it's all made out of some basic materials: metals, plastic, glass, paper. The fifth one is just the next revolution, and that's organic material to make compost for our soils.

And we also have a center here in Boulder called the Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials. We call it the CHaRM. It's the first one in the nation, and we collect a lot of strange things at the CHaRM. That's our mission is to introduce at least one new material a year.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the way the situation has changed. I can remember in the 1980s seeing a lot of newspaper articles emphasizing the vast landfills that we were creating. And I don't think I see that kind of coverage anymore.

Mr. LOMBARDI: No, you don't. Thirty years ago the recycling industry was born from a concept of resource conservation. And it had nothing to do with landfills. In 1987, when the New York garbage barge started floating around the world and nobody would let it dock, well then...

INSKEEP: Oh, this is the famous story then. Yeah. There was all this garbage and no one knew where to put it. Right.

Mr. LOMBARDI: Well, that raised everyone's awareness. But it, unfortunately, created the message that landfills were the problem not resource conservation. And so that sort of took the headlines for the next ten years. We have a landfill crisis.

Well, we never had a landfill crisis. What we have is a resource-efficiency crisis. There are resource wars going around the planet right now to get the raw materials that are being destroyed in our landfills and our incinerators.

INSKEEP: Do you sometimes wonder if it really matters that much, because as you point out there are landfills. You could just throw stuff away and get more stuff. And a lot of resources are renewable, like paper, for example. What's the point?

Mr. LOMBARDI: There are resource wars going on right now in Indonesia to get at those trees, in Africa to get at those minerals, in the Middle East to get at that oil. It is not easy to go get resources anymore.

Getting us closer to zero waste means that we need to work with industry to start designing their products and packaging for recovery rather than for the dump. BMW in Germany - when the European Union required anyone who makes or sells a car in Europe to take it back and recycle 90 percent of it - well, as soon as that law was passed, then BMW streamlined and reduced the number of plastics in the car from 21 to 3, because it was in their financial interest to recycle a car as cheaply as possible.

INSKEEP: Granting that you can find businesses that will embrace this model, do you think the business community at large agrees and accepts your message?

Mr. LOMBARDI: Actually, big business understands this better than big government does. We're waiting for big government to get the concept here that waste is expensive - it is inefficient. And so I look very much forward to the captains of industry getting together with the leaders in government and creating a system so that greener becomes more profitable.

INSKEEP: Eric Lombardi of Eco-Cycle. Thanks very much.

Mr. LOMBARDI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we've recycled all the other stories in our Trash Talk series, which you can hear again and again and again at

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