Using a stakeholder-driven approach and tools like a Zero Waste Community Planning Toolkit help to create a zero waste community where resources and materials are valued, and efforts are made to keep all materials in a circular economy.
By Amanda Rice Waddle

Zero Waste communities are on the path to zero waste. These communities are working hard to create the necessary system change to make zero waste mainstream, accepted, and part of everyday life in the community. The best way to create a zero waste community is to create a Zero Waste Strategic Plan, implement the plan, and then reassess. This all helps make the culture change necessary in zero waste communities. This article goes over best practices for creating zero waste communities.


Zero Waste San Diego holds bi-monthly Fixit Clinics to help the community repair their items. These events also help build the culture change needed in Zero Waste Communities.
Photo courtesy of Laura Anthony.

Zero Waste Strategic Plan
Zero Waste communities can be created through grassroots advocacy, municipal staff initiative, or elected official leadership (usually a combination of all three). The Zero Waste Strategic Plan serves as the map on the path to zero waste. Municipal staff or a consultant team often writes this plan after the municipality has committed to working towards zero waste. This commitment often comes through passing a zero waste resolution, establishing a goal (e.g., Zero Waste by 2040), or initiating the development of a Zero Waste Strategic Plan. Communities can also show their commitment to zero waste by adopting the international, peer-reviewed definition of zero waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.

A Zero Waste Community Planning Toolkit can help guide, assess, and develop zero waste initiatives (policies, programs, and infrastructure) needed for the Zero Waste Strategic Plan. The zero waste planning process should be stakeholder driven. Through a stakeholder-driving planning process, the stakeholders (e.g., everyone in the community, such as residents, business owners, faith-based organizations, K-12 schools, haulers, and nonprofit organizations) play a significant role in creating and organizing the initiatives needed for the community to reach zero waste. Using a stakeholder planning approach also starts the culture change needed to adopt and accept the changes that come with creating zero waste communities.

The list of initiatives is the focus of the Zero Waste Strategic Plan. Examples of initiatives include Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance (Policy), Education and Outreach (Program), and Creative and Building Reuse Store (Infrastructure).1 Once the Zero Waste Strategic Plan is created, it will guide implementation through descriptive initiatives and detailed advanced technical analyses. The plan will also include a timeline for implementation. These sections serve as a “roadmap” for getting to zero waste.


The Repurpose Project, located in Gainesville, FL, is a nonprofit organization with two retail stores. Selling used items to the community helps to build Zero Waste Communities by diverting items from the landfill, providing quality, low-cost items to the community, and establishing a culture where buying used is routine. 
Photo courtesy of Amanda Rice Waddle.

Zero Waste Advocacy Group
A Zero Waste Advocacy Group is often a grassroots organization, such as Zero Waste Gainesville or Zero Waste San Diego, that helps the community reach zero waste. These organizations are very involved in the zero waste planning process and help teach the community about what zero waste is to help with culture change. The advocacy groups are critical stakeholders and generally have a list of initiatives they think should be included in the zero waste plan.
The advocacy groups help the municipal staff stay on track and often are the ones who hold them accountable for decisions and directions made during city or county council meetings. These grassroots organizations are also very involved as stakeholders in planning and implementing the zero waste initiatives. Their efforts help keep the municipal staff on track during implementation and help create the necessary culture change. They aim to get zero waste moving community-wide and organize to make the required change to help create zero waste communities.

Advocacy groups can partner with municipalities by providing education and outreach to the community, conducting a study to gain information, or leading a pilot program such as creating a green team in a K-12 school. This partnership can be a contractual agreement with compensation or a smaller-scale effort where the advocacy group provides information at specific municipal events. These zero waste advocacy groups are essential to the success of the zero waste effort and can serve as a partner to municipal staff.

Culture Change
Zero waste communities will undergo a culture change where they understand, embrace, and champion zero waste principles and daily practices. This culture change comes from the knowledge that what we throw away are valuable resources that should be conserved. This shift results from the zero waste planning process, extensive outreach during implementation, and access to necessary infrastructure (e.g., recycling and composting bins) that make participating in zero waste programs possible.

Zero Waste Advocacy Groups play a significant role in the zero waste culture change of valuing resources. For example, Zero Waste San Diego holds bi-monthly fix-it clinics. These repair workshops help community members fix broken items and instill the knowledge that our things have value and should be repaired and reused for as long as possible.

Municipal Staff for Implementation
The municipal staff will lead the initiative’s implementation once the Zero Waste Strategic Plan is completed. A plan can contain 12, 24, or even 45 initiatives, so implementation in a phased approach is recommended. The Zero Waste Strategic Plan can include an implementation timeline that lays out the initiative in a systematic implementation-phased approach. For example, before a policy on banning recyclable materials from the landfill would be proposed, there would be policies and programs on recycling, such as universal systems, and recycling education and outreach. The community needs the systems in place to participate in the new zero waste program and the information to understand how to comply. Once that is established, a policy banning recyclables from the landfill cart or dumpster could occur.

Municipal staff work to implement the plan; therefore, the plan serves as a guide to implementation with initiative information and direction. It can contain staffing recommendations, a timeline for implementation, and cost estimates. This gives staff a substantial idea of what it will take to get their community to zero waste.

Municipal staff do not have to carry out everything in a Zero Waste Strategic Plan. They may hire consultants or community partners to work on a project, such as creating a zero waste educational campaign. Municipal staff might also work with the private sector (for-profit and nonprofit) to create a public/private partnership to implement a zero waste initiative. The City of Austin, TX, and Goodwill Central Texas have partnered to offer a free on-call contactless curbside collection service for unwanted clothing, shoes, accessories, toys, linens, and housewares for reuse or recycling. Adopting a policy such as a community recycling ordinance is one of the most effective ways to harness the forces of the marketplace to accomplish zero waste goals.

Another important role of municipal staff is enforcement. Many times, enforcement staff are the ones who are dispatched to address noncompliance. For example, they may go to the food-generating business giving out plastic utensils after the city implemented an Accessories Upon Request ordinance. This enforcement staff will need zero waste training and ordinance knowledge to give technical assistance to the business so they can learn how to comply. This expanded enforcement effort is how municipal staff will work with businesses during implementation.


Reusables-To-Go Program in Alameda, CA.
Photo courtesy of Debi Ryan.

It may be time to reassess after the communities have worked towards zero waste for five or more years. This can include several things. One way to reassess is by closely examining the metrics over the years. Good key performance indicators are diversion rate, tons of materials going to destructive disposal (landfill or incineration), and per capita generation. Examine the change in metrics over the years that the community has been working towards zero waste. Celebrate the successes and understand that change takes time.

This might also be time to begin the zero waste planning process again and update the initiatives needed. After several years of working towards zero waste, a community might feel like some initiatives are complete, and others have yet to be implemented. A new zero waste planning process might bring to light new initiatives that may be needed. For example, the City of Palo Alto, CA, adopted its original Zero Waste Strategic Plan in 2005, developed a Zero Waste Operational Plan in 2007, and updated its plan again in 2018.

A reassessment may also be needed when all the initiatives have been implemented, but the diversion rate has not reached 90 percent or greater. At this point, a material characterization study and working with the toolkit during the zero waste planning process will elevate what is needed to push the community closer to achieving zero waste. Palo Alto’s diversion rate increased from 62 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2016 through the implementation of its original zero waste plans. The city’s 2018 plan identified the new and expanded policies and programs needed to reach its goal of 95 percent.

Using a stakeholder-driven approach and tools like a Zero Waste Community Planning Toolkit, the zero waste planning process will yield the best zero waste initiatives for the community. An advocacy group organizing for zero waste will help with the culture change needed to reach zero waste and the community’s understanding and acceptance of the new policies or programs. The municipal staff, contractors, and volunteers are essential for implementation. Once a good bit of implementation has occurred, reassessment is critical to identifying what is needed to get the community to zero waste. Together, these things help to create a zero waste community where resources and materials are valued, and efforts are made to keep all materials in a circular economy. | WA

Amanda Rice Waddle is Zero Waste USA’s Education Program Manager. Zero Waste USA is the national affiliate of the Zero Waste International Alliance. Zero Waste USA is a nonprofit organization with the goal of inspiring communities to embrace and achieve zero waste. They have created these tools to support communities in working towards zero waste. Zero Waste USA offers classes to teach participants such as municipal employees, zero waste advocates, young professionals, and consultants about zero waste principles, the zero waste planning process, and how to use the tools. The Zero Waste USA tools are open source and available for any community planning for a Zero Waste future. Amanda can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit

Additional examples can be found in Zero Waste USA’s Zero Waste Community Planning Toolkit ( and the U.S. EPA Managing and Transforming Waste Streams Tool, which lists 100 possible Zero Waste initiatives that communities can adopt ( This tool is a reference for initiatives and includes descriptions and links to examples, and it has more than 300 implementation examples from communities across the U.S.