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ZERO by FIFTY: Missoula’s waste reduction plan gears up for its public debut

Missoula’s Zero Waste Advisory Committee gathered at Home ReSource recently for an open house, and to gear up for the unveiling of a plan to eliminate the city’s waste stream by 2050. (Missoula Current)

There’s a vibe in the air at Home ReSource as members of Missoula’s Zero Waste Advisory Committee gather for their open house. From the waste reduction station to the action strategies set about the room, the plan to reach ZERO by FIFTY has never been so close.

In fact, it could go live by the end of this year, setting Missoula down the path of a cleaner, greener and healthier future.

“We spent last year studying other communities that are doing zero waste well and hosting public forums to hear ideas from our own community,” said Chase Jones. “We’ve put those together to create a framework for our forthcoming plan. We’re super excited to bring that framework back to the community to make sure we’re heading down the right path.”

Nearly two years ago, the Missoula City Council adopted a resolution giving city staff until February 2018 to research and craft a plan to achieve the city’s goal of eliminating its waste stream by 2050.

After researching the practices of Boulder, Longmont and Fort Collins, Colorado, as well as the vanguard city’s of Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, the resulting plan is ready to make its public debut and will do so by the end this year.

The plan’s framework is available online and public comments can be submitted through Oct. 27.

“We’re very close,” said Jones, who serves as the city’s energy conservation and climate action coordinator. “We now have a strategy framework and we’re excited to put the detail to it.”

The city’s resolution, adopted in February 2016, defined zero waste as a means to design and manage “products and processes” that avoid or eliminate the volume of materials sent each year to the landfill, which receives more than 210,000 tons of garbage annually.

That increases greenhouse gases as it decomposes and wastes precious resources, which maintains the public’s demand for toxic products, like plastic bags and Styrofoam. At the current rate, the city has said, the local landfill is expected to last just 13 more years.

“Missoula values clean air, clean water open space, a healthy community and a vibrant economy,” said Jones. “We heard this from citizens over and over. With some thoughtful planning, we can change our systems to align with those values and create the type of community and quality of life our community envisions today and for future generations.”

To achieve its goal, the pending plan will likely hinge on four focus areas, including access to zero-waste stations and enhancing infrastructure, such as composting, food recovery and collecting e-waste. An educational component is expected and policy decisions will likely result.

Jones, who has worked on the project for nearly two years, said the strategy plays around the concept of reducing waste, reusing products and recycling what’s left. Do that well and there’s not much left to send to the landfill.

“To achieve our Zero Waste goals we must first reduce and then reuse whenever possible and recycle what’s left,” Jones said. “Most folks default to recycling immediately, and recycling is important, but we cannot recycle our way to Zero Waste.”

While the “cradle to grave” concept is alive and well in Missoula, where items get used once and discarded, those behind the plan look to change how products are designed and used. Items could find a second use, completing the zero-waste circle.

Other items could disappear, like the plastic bags blowing down the interstate and products dispensed in Styrofoam, which is considered by the U.S. EPA as a possible human carcinogen that takes 500 years to biodegrade.

“There’s a smarter and more efficient ways to do things, and it’s just better for the total economy,” said committee member Blake Nicolazzo.

“This is about progress, not perfection. We can beat ourselves up all day long on all the things we do wrong. But if you just take a couple steps, it will really mean something for the future, and it feels good to do things in a way that works for everyone, not just yourself.”