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NYC as a Zero Waste City: Implications for Businesses

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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By Ushma Pandya Mehta

Across the globe, cities are taking aggressive action to support reduction in trash to landfill, with important implications for businesses and residents.

Since the term Zero Waste came into circulation a few decades ago, cities globally are adopting “zero waste goals.”  Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the design of resources so that all products are reused and nothing is sent to landfill or incineration. New York City, for example, has announced a goal of 90 percent diversion from landfill by the year 2030 in its One New York or OneNYC plan. Other cities with zero waste goals include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Dallas.

Spotlight on New York City

Historically, New York City sends approximately 3.6 million tons (7.2 billion pounds) to landfill and incineration each year from residential and commercial buildings. The OneNYC plan targets diverting more than 3 million tons from landfill by 2030.

Currently, New York City has no landfills or incinerators of its own, and either ships, rails, or drives its trash to surrounding states, costing more than $350 million a year and rising. There are economic and environmental costs to the disposal of the city’s trash, and Zero Waste goals ensure that the city can continue to support a vibrant residential and business environment.

As part of its Zero Waste goals, New York City is implementing eight specific initiatives. One initiative specifically focuses on the businesses that operate within the city, calling for a 90 percent diversion rate for commercial waste. To achieve this goal, the Department of Sanitation NY (DSNY) implemented two rules in 2016 that require businesses to:


  • Recycle metal, glass, plastic, paper, cardboard, and beverage cartons

  • Separate their organics (i.e. food waste and wet paper) for beneficial use (e.g., composting, anaerobic digestion).

While businesses have been recycling, the estimated commercial diversion rate in New York City is 22 percent (based on analysis conducted by the Transform Don’t Trash campaign), so there is significant room for improvement.

What businesses need to do to support Zero Waste goals

In order to achieve New York City's ambitious goals, businesses and commercial building owners / property managers will need to do the following:


  • Determine the composition of their waste (i.e. conduct a waste audit) to determine what is in their trash, the volume of trash, what can be recycled and what is being recycled

  • Establish shared goals so that everyone knows what the company is working towards achieving

  • Re-engineer processes to reduce the generation of trash (e.g. determine if they can reduce packaging or use more easily recyclable materials)

  • Review sourcing practices (e.g. move to reusables vs. single use products, work with suppliers to find new materials)

  • Establish new waste management processes within the building to ensure compliance with new rules. Bins and signage are key!

  • Train and support staff in behavior change with regards to their recyclables and trash. This is critical and will require a mindset shift by employees who were not required to think about what they were tossing into the trash.

  • Train cleaning staff to support the new programs and be in compliance. Cleaning staff are on the front lines in getting these changes into the building’s DNA.  They can help identify where there are gaps in employee knowledge or behavior and they maintain the integrity of the recycling program.

Cities are establishing the goals for waste diversion in their cities but each building and business will need to develop their own program to ensure that they are in compliance. If your business operates in a city with a zero waste commitment, are you ready to comply with the new rules and regulations?

Ushma Pandya Mehta is Partner, Think Zero. You can follow her on Instagram at ditchthewaste.

Image credit: Flickr / Kevin Gessner

3p Contributor

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