City Ordinances and Policies of Successful Zero Waste Communities

By Bob Gedert, SWEEP Steering Committee Member and President of the National Recycling Coalition

As the number of communities embracing Zero Waste grows to more than two hundred within the United States, a pattern can be observed from the programs that have achieved success. As new communities consider the bold step forward toward enhancing their diversion programs and declaring Zero Waste goals, planning for the future becomes essential. Watching other communities expand their programs, and engage in the learning processes of collection, processing, marketing of hard to recycle materials, as well as deploying new public education and outreach motivation programs is important for those ready to move forward and explore the new frontiers of Zero Waste.

Zero Waste is a journey. On this journey, each community may come across a few speed bumps in developing city policies and investing in resources. To move past these obstacles, it will be important to focus on a shared vision from the community; a community invested shared goal of Zero Waste.

Successful Zero Waste communities start with people from within the community. They start with community discussions, which can take place over several years, when those discussions are then brought to City Council. A resolution embracing the principles of Zero Waste by City Council places the charge on the city staff to begin the planning and development of a zero waste plan. Most communities embrace a council adopted plan of action that displays a series of actions necessary to reach Zero Waste, focused on a diversion goal of 90%+ by a target date such as 2030. Then there are intermediate target goals such as 50% by 2020 and 75% by 2025.

Measurement of success can be challenging and needs further study, as “diversion” through tonnage is an elusive calculation where raw information is hard to obtain and verify, and often does not measure the success of waste reduction and reuse efforts. Another measure to consider is disposal reduction. As this blog is an overview of common ordinances of success, I’ll explore measurement techniques in a future article.

The power of enforced City Council resolutions and ordinances are the cornerstone that Zero Waste communities rely on for strength and support. Such support from elected officials offers a strong signal to citizens that these new programs and policies are real and will receive funding in the city budgetary cycle. City Council support does not happen through strong arm lobbying or influential back door maneuvering. Instead, the power of the City Council Resolution and Ordinances comes from the community meetings and the public voice that brought Zero Waste to the City Council. Elected officials are thus reflecting the will of the people, and to move that will forward the next step is to form a citizen Zero Waste Commission, appointed by City Council to discuss policies, programs and actions that lead toward Zero Waste, and make recommendations to City Council.

Zero Waste policies take the form of resolutions of council or ordinances. The pathway begins in the community through the council appointed citizen commission. City staff engage with the commission on facts and research on the various topics. When an issue is ready for prime time, a recommendation is made by the Commission to City Council. The City Attorney Office is engaged to form and write the resolution and/or ordinance as it affects city code. City Council may debate the issue and send it back for further study before taking action. It is best to know the general public’s opinion on the topic, as well as the business community, through stakeholder meetings, before going to City Council, as the councilmembers will ask about community opinions.

Common Zero Waste policies and ordinances that I have observed in successful Zero Waste communities include the following:

  • Pay as you Throw trash cart rate structures – by city ordinance, with graduated rated set by City Council to encourage increased recycling and trash cart downsizing
  • Universal Recycling Ordinance, requiring recycling access for tenants in commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings
  • Universal distribution of recycling carts to single family households by ordinance with no startup or delivery fees to citizens
  • City Council resolution that requires all city departments to engage in Zero Waste planning and diversion (e.g. parks dept., convention center, public works, fire, police, libraries )
  • Construction & Demolition Debris Ordinance requiring diversion of debris from construction sites, usually through the building permit process
  • Food Waste Collection Ordinance requiring restaurants and food servers to collect and divert to composting their food scrap, some with model ordinances that encourage food capture for human consumption.
  • City Council Ordinance requiring private sector service providers (haulers) to register with the city for annual safety inspections and provide annual tonnage reports.
  • City Council commitment expressed through the annual budgetary approval supporting new Zero Waste programs such as reuse collection.
  • Stronger public education and outreach programs with a City Council budget commitment of $1 to $3 per capita per year.
  • City Council Disposal Bans on recyclables, if the community owns/operates disposal facilities.
  • City Council resolution requiring recycled content and reuse specifications in city purchasing policies.
  • City Council resolution supporting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), signaling support for statewide initiatives.

Zero Waste policies adopted by City Council are extremely important because they influence all the materials that are generated in the City, including waste and material streams not directly handled by the City. By setting an example through consistent policy setting, the City can achieve Zero Waste citywide and lead the region in diversion activity. For a glimpse at how a few communities are leading down the path of Zero Waste, USEPA offers a few case studies at their website “Managing and Transforming Waste Streams: A Tool for Communities” at:


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