With values on the line, Missoula City Council adopts Zero Waste Plan

Members of Republic Services monitor the activity at the Missoula landfill. The city’s newly adopted Zero Waste Plan looks to reduce the amount of trash that ends up in the landfill, and cut it to zero by 2050. (Missoula Current file photo)

Saying meaningful action starts with a good plan, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday adopted the Zero Waste Plan, setting a goal of eliminating municipal waste by 2050 and challenging upstream suppliers to take responsibility for their products.

While one council member passed the measure off as a “feel good” patch to an overwhelming challenge, most said the effort was worth pursuing given the alternatives, such as mass consumption, an overflowing landfill and a polluted environment.

“We’re decades behind on climate change, we’re decades behind on waste, so we act out of necessity and out of duty,” said council member Jordan Hess. “It will be difficult and contentious at times, but we have to do it. Setting a plan is the first step at setting meaningful action into motion.”

The plan suggests that wasting resources has become a cultural norm, and it’s also unsustainable. While plastics pollute the world’s waterways and reusable items fill Missoula’s garbage dump, the plan looks to reverse course and change what’s now considered acceptable.

Better access to zero waste systems, services and programs will take time to develop, but the council and the plan’s backers believe now is the time to start.

“By adopting the plan, what you’re committing to is an endorsement of the goals, framework, recommendations and strategies in the plan, and a directive for staff to put detail to that strategy for implementation,” said Chase Jones, the city’s energy and conservation coordinator.

The plan hinges on four paths to success, including access, infrastructure, education and policy. Each pathway includes a number of actions, from transforming the city’s collection infrastructure to expanding the public’s options when discarding different forms of waste.

Of the plan’s 42 actions, 22 are rooted in policy, and several are set to come online in one to three years. Others will take longer.

“It really gets at values if we don’t act,” said Jones. “Missoula is a place where we love the quality of life, and if we don’t address our waste stream, it could impact our quality of life.”

Before the plan’s adoption, several local businesses had already embarked on plans to reduce waste, including Logjam Presents. The entertainment promoter has positioned itself as a “green” company by reducing its kitchen waste and shifting from plastic to compostable cups.

While that effort cost money, Logjam owner Nick Checota said, it offers unique benefits that could increase business. Consumers can choose between wasteful companies and those looking to reduce their carbon footprint.

“One of the benefits that hasn’t been discussed is the marketing benefit and the perception benefit,” Checota said. “To be identified as a green company has marketing value, both with our customer base in Missoula and with the artists. With the city having that kind of position and reputation, while it may not be measurable, it has a definite benefit to the community to have that kind of branding associated with it.”

Council member Jess Ramos supported the plan, saying everyone wants clean water, clean air and less waste. At the same time, he said, the plan’s success will hinge on the private sector.

“Any success addressing climate change will, unfortunately, involve the Almighty dollar,” Ramos said. “When something is profitable, humanity will shift toward that. By setting our goals as a community, maybe we’ll start to put some pressure on the private sector.”

Council member Michelle Cares doubted the plan’s ability to succeed, suggesting it may be little more than a feel-good approach to an overwhelming challenge. While she voted for the plan, she looked for guidance from her fellow council members.

“When I think of my neighbors or some family members, I think it’s extremely unlikely there will be a groundswell of changing opinions on waste,” Cares said. “I wonder if this is merely for the good feelings of having a plan that looks nice but won’t be able to succeed.”