Toward a Better Understanding of Zero Waste in Los Angeles

by Andrew Jarvis

In recent years, Zero Waste has grown in popularity as a way to reduce one’s environmental footprint. Mainstream portrayals in the U.S. of this lifestyle optimistically focus on the benefits of purchasing expensive goods in bulk and producing only enough trash to fill a mason jar. In practice, however, Zero Waste may come across as an all-or-nothing ideal that is inaccessible to people who lack the financial and social resources, educational background, or cultural identity that aligns with this exclusive, privileged lifestyle.

This, combined with the neoliberal focus on individual responsibility that dominates media discussions of waste, effectively shames people for producing any waste -- when in fact most waste is beyond their control.

As I delved into Zero Waste culture as co-chair of UCLA’s Zero Waste Campaign last fall, I found it frustrating how much responsibility for waste reduction and management was placed on us as consumers. Yes, our choices do make a difference, but ultimately, consumers are not responsible for the majority of the waste stream – producers are.

Going to the grocery store and avoiding plastic packaging like the plague made me feel better about my own footprint, but it didn’t fundamentally solve the problem that there was so much plastic in the first place. I knew that there needed to be a source reduction, and that work was being done to move towards this, but what, exactly, was that work?

As part of my role, I had worked directly with UCLA’s Zero Waste by 2020 goal, and had grown familiar with feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of the policy and the number of actors involved. This made me wonder how similar Zero Waste goals were approached at different scales. To answer these questions, I organized a speaker panel in January as part of the UCLA Renewable Energy Association’s Waste Awareness Week. The panel consisted of five industry professionals representing the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

The goal of the panel – titled “Cross-Sector Approaches to Scaling Zero Waste” – was to make accessible to students and the general public information about the work that is being done today to advance towards sustainable and responsible waste management. It also sought to shed light on the challenges that different sectors face at their respective scales, and the ways in which these challenges bear similarities and/or differences.

The transcripts for both the panel presentations and the open Q&A can be found here, as can presenter slides, where applicable. Key themes that arose during the panel include the failure of the global waste system, the need for source reduction of plastics, the political power that students have in organizing and becoming involved with policy, and the (unequal) externalizing of the true costs of waste.

00:00 Introduction, Andrew Jarvis

03:25 Bonny Bentzin, UCLA’s Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer, discussed the logistics of UCLA’s Zero Waste by 2020 goal and the unique way in which UCLA approaches waste management as a large public university. She addressed how UCLA engages different members of the campus community (contracted vendors, facilities teams, faculty, and students) with this goal, and noted the need for viable waste-to-energy systems aside from incineration.

22:23 Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, discussed how Plastic Pollution Coalition operates as a network and how this approach differs from those taken in the private and public sectors. She showed the video “Open Your Eyes” and argued that modern society is characterized by planned obsolescence and a cradle-to-grave mentality. She emphasized the importance of reframing the discourse surrounding single-use plastics through language change, such as using the word “resources” instead of “waste.”

37:35 The next presenter, Jennifer Pinkerton, Environmental Affairs Officer for LA City Sanitation’s Solid Resources Citywide Recycling Division, addressed public-sector operations at the municipal scale. Jennifer discussed the city’s Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan (also known as the Zero Waste Plan). She described how LA Sanitation has no direct control over the commercial sector -- which generates a significant proportion of the city’s waste – and that the city’s policies have to comply with the 126 bills in the California state legislature that pertain to some aspect of waste.

53:10 Next was Jennifer Cilloniz, Organics Program Manager at Athens Services, a local private-sector waste collection and processing company contracted by UCLA. She discussed the logistics of Athens’ current scale of operations, underscoring the difficulty of sorting the sheer amount of waste received. She also showed a video tour of one of Athens’ material recovery facilities (MRF) and noted that Athens has designated an $106,000 grant for a food pantry for food insecure UCLA students.

1:03:58 Lastly, Jackie Nuñez, Founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Program Manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition, showed the trailer for the film STRAWS. She discussed the validity of slacktivism, how single use is a design flaw, and how awareness of waste and its effects cannot be unlearned.

The open Q&A session that followed the panel presentations addressed how students can best help each sector advance its causes and explored the relationship between environmental justice, (zero) waste, and accessibility.

The panel was hosted at UCLA, which is located in the ancestral homelands of the Gabrielino/Tongva people. We acknowledge the discrimination and repression that has taken and continues to take place against the Indigenous population of the Los Angeles Basin, and honor the Gabrielino/Tongva people, elders, and ancestors as the traditional caretakers of the land.

Andrew Jarvis studies International Development Studies and Geography at UCLA. Upon graduating, he hopes to work in international environmental management with a focus on public engagement.