Some cities have banned the use of plastic grocery bags and created ordinances making it illegal to toss reusable items in the trash, but Missoula's proposed Zero Waste Plan will likely take things slower, starting with community outreach.

City staff and community partners on Wednesday unveiled their new Zero Waste Plan, setting a blueprint to achieve Missoula's stated goal of generating zero waste by 2050.

Getting there will require investment, both financial and through public participation, but given the success in other cities, advocates believe “ZERO by FIFTY” is more realistic now than it has ever been.

“This is a really great time for this to happen,” said Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource. “There's momentum nationally and momentum locally to do this. It fits into our climate goals and city growth goals. We can tackle the things we know we need to do.”

The plan suggests that wasting resources has become a norm in U.S. culture, though it may also be unsustainable. From plastic and food to metal and wood, most of the items end up at the landfill, accounting for nearly half of all discarded items.

But those items are also reusable, though recycling in Missoula remains anything but convenient or easy. Among its many stated goals, the plan looks to change that by creating universal access to zero waste systems, services and programs.

“In all the communities we looked at that are on their way to zero waste, the city has played a leadership role in changing the rules of the game, so wasting isn't as easy as it once was,” said Jeremy Drake, also with Home ReSource. “The entire community needs to be involved. Leadership from different sectors needs to be involved.”

Some local businesses have already started down the path of zero waste and, in the process, helped inform the new plan. Among them, St. Patrick Hospital keeps nearly 40 percent of its waste from the landfill through source reduction, reuse and recycling.

Others, like Zoo City Apparel, cut its paper use in half while Logjam Presents found ways to compost plastics, making it “one of the most notable” examples of what's possible in Missoula.

“They hooked up with Missoula Compost Collection and changed their entire business plan to support composting instead of wasting plastics,” Drake said. “There's more of that happening in the community and more that can be done to support that.”

The plan, as written, 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 diversion options for 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, including a possible zero waste business park.

“That's happening in other communities around the country,” Drake said. “It's a relatively new idea and it seems the cities on the cutting edge of zero waste are looking at that as a possibility.”

Other actions are long term, such “pay as you throw” and using recycled materials in road construction. Policies aimed at banning the disposal of electronic waste, reusable materials and other items in the landfill are also mentioned, though advocates suggest they may not be needed if early stages of the plan find success.

“They all need to come into play in various ways,” Deuel said of the proposed actions. “From developing a recognition system for businesses that are innovative in zero waste, to radically reducing our construction and demolition waste, to requiring that producer responsibility piece – all of those need to happen.”

Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource and a partner in the Zero Wast Plan, said momentum is building in Missoula to tackle elements of the plan sooner rather than later. (Missoula Current file photo)
Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource and a partner in the Zero Wast Plan, said momentum is building in Missoula to tackle elements of the plan sooner rather than later. (Missoula Current file photo)

Chase Jones, the city's energy and conservation coordinator, traces the plan's beginning to a community climate summit held in 2014. A number of community partners jumped in and a committee was formed to pursue ideas.

A zero-waste resolution adopted by the City Council in 2016 set the plan in motion.

“We believe the plan will set a course for how Missoula views materials and resources,” said Jones. “It brings a new perspective and approach for what we traditionally think of as waste. It really is going to take us all.”

It will also take funding, Jones said, including a new full-time position to implement the plan and oversee the progress. Funding for a baseline study to identify the city's current level of waste – and to mark future progress – has already been set aside in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget.

“We're ready to do that right away,” said Jones. “It will give us important information on baseline so we can judge how we're doing toward the progress of those goals.”

While the City Council's Parks and Conservation Committee didn't act on the plan on Wednesday, most praised the proposal and its goals. Deeper questions over funding and strategy will likely follow next week.

“What this commits us to is taking that first step and living and supporting our values as a community,” said council member Bryan von Lossberg. “If we wait to have the specific answers to every detail of every step along the way, we'll never do the big, bold things we need to do as a community, and that there's clear support in this community for doing.”