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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Zero Waste Zones Launch Ten-Year Anniversary

Ten years ago today the Zero Waste Zones (ZWZ) launched at the acclaimed press conference hosted at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) and lead by Stanley Meiburg, Acting Regional Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4. The ZWZ propelled Atlanta into the global spotlight as THE forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost.

... in the beginning
The ZWZ adventure began in the summer of 2008 when Atlanta lost a convention to another city as the client perceived the other city “greener.” A convention-driven city, Atlanta was ready to embrace “green practices” in the downtown hospitality and entertainment district where businesses pledged to implement zero-waste initiatives.

Working in collaboration with Atlanta Recycles, the Georgia Recycling Coalition, the Sustainability Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ZWZ Criteria was developed, participants recruited, and the ZWZ-Downtown Atlanta launched.

Laura speaking at the ZWZ
launch press conference
Officially launched as a Green Foodservice Alliance (GFA) program in partnership with Atlanta Recycles, the ZWZ brought together diverse segments of Atlanta's business community as well as local, state and national government entities. Captain Planet Foundation Chair Laura Turner Seydel served as the ZWZ Chair.

The GFA operated under the auspices of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA), the state affiliate of the National Restaurant Association. Holly Elmore served as the GFA Founder and Executive Director.

Founding ZWZ Participants - the GWCC, Georgia Dome, Olympic Centennial Park, Georgia Aquarium, The World of Coca-Cola, Ted's Montana Grill, Hyatt Regency, Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, and the Marriott Marquis - pledged to implement and maintain the following criteria:
  • Spent grease collection for the production of bio-fuel.
  • Common recyclables (cardboard, paper, glass, plastic and metals) collection for recycling.
  • Excess food donation in accordance with the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
  • Food residuals from preparation | service and excess food not compliant with the Food Donation Act collection for composting or other state-permitted destinations.
The formal ZWZ definition: a collective gathering of community working together on changing current disposal methods of consumed products. The ZWZ goal was to divert the maximum amount of recyclable items and organic matter from landfills and back into the production cycle.

The foodservice industry, the second largest private-sector industry, served as a catalyst for change in standard corporate operating practices. Government, non-profits, trade associations, and private enterprise stakeholders developed an ACTION plan that made good business sense for the entire value chain, including the community and the environment. A ZWZ motto exemplified the power of teamwork:
Collaboration is key for success.

The Zones
A zone was a defined geographic area or a foodservice category with unique characteristics impacting ZWZ Criteria. Territory zones partnered with a local business association and mirrored the association’s district; territory zones created route density for ZWZ suppliers. A category zone example was Off-Premises Caterers where food is transported to an off-site location.

ZWZ-Buckhead Launch Team
By the end of 2009, the Atlanta business community embraced the ZWZ with additional zones established in Midtown, Buckhead, and for Off-Premises Caterers. ZWZ participation made good business sense and improved bottom lines from cost-savings and revenue generation. 

Once a participant focused on food waste generated in operations, across the board, food cost was reduced due to waste reduction. The ZWZ educated on the legal protection provided by the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and was instrumental in significantly increasing food donations from Atlanta's hospitality community.

It was empowering to witness the collaboration among otherwise competitors as ZWZ Participants navigated the establishment of sustainable best industry practices. As an example, the Hyatt Regency Director of Engineering Randy Childers invited his fellow downtown hotel counterparts for a back-of-the-house tour and food-waste collection for compost demonstration. 
Later Randy sent the following unsolicited ZWZ endorsement: 
“Thank you for how easy you made it for us to accomplish some of the most challenging of our remaining sustainability goals.  I can’t express how beneficial this was in accelerating our ability to meet not just your challenge, but to address a serious need in the community and our internal goal of finding a productive, sustainable use for our food waste.  Your support for our recycling efforts and the recognition we have received through our mutual efforts, are very much appreciated.  Thanks for paving the way.”
Doubletree ribbon-cutting
In Buckhead, the Doubletree Atlanta-Buckhead General Manager Dave Rossman took a leadership role in launching and growing the ZWZ-Buckhead. With fewer trash compactor pulls due to less waste and no foul odors from decomposing food, the Doubletree found an easy-to-implement, cost-saving solution for their food waste dilemma. In addition, Dave held a ribbon-cutting ceremony when the former trash compactor was converted to a recycling compactor; a dumpster was now adequate to handle waste generated at the hotel.

Fifth Group Partner Steve Simon championed the ZWZ-Midtown launch at Ecco. Thanks to the Midtown Alliance's strong support, office building management attended the launch. A true trailblazer, Steve implemented food-waste collection for compost practices at all Fifth Group restaurants where leases permitted the practice. Subsequently, new restaurant-lease negotiations included provisions for property-management support of food-waste collection for compost.

... and as quoted by Steve, ECCO was Atlanta's first dumpster-free restaurant,
“Before the Zero Waste Zones we had an 8-yard dumpster that was pulled three times per week. Our trash is now viewed as a raw material and collected by either a recycling or composting company. By following the ZWZ Criteria, ECCO no longer requires a dumpster. We are excited to be Atlanta’s first dumpster-free restaurant!
Chef Ahmad at Affairs
demonstrating practices in place
For the ZWZ-Off-Premises Catering Champion Patrick Cuccaro, Affairs to Remember General Manager, ZWZ participation represented a branding opportunity as Atlanta's Greenest Caterer and proved a strong revenue generator. In Patrick's words:
“The ZWZ program is a financial winner for our company.  It differentiates us, and in the realm of luxury catering where exciting food is increasingly a commodity, differentiation is what it’s about. We have already experienced well over $100,000 in sales made almost exclusively because we are a responsible caterer who “walks the talk” of sustainable practices.
When you compare what we paid our waste hauler to come out and unload the huge bins six times a week, versus what we pay them to come out twice per week now and collect one half bin – plus what we pay to remove organics for composting – we’re saving 10%.  It’s very significant.
Affairs to Remember now composts, recycles and donates food to a local mission, diverting 83% of our assets away from the landfill. In just two years, we have diverted a total of 100 tons from the landfill and found we save money in the process.”
Awards and Accolades
Holly during CNN interview
The national media loved the ZWZ! Within months of the launch press conference the ZWZ were featured in a CNN Story, City Aims for Zero Waste. The story was featured on CNN's home page and aired during prime-time viewing in national and global markets. In the fall, the New York Times published the Nudging Recycling from Less Waste to None front-page article featuring the ZWZ.

At the 2009 GRACE - GRA Crystal of Excellence - Awards, Holly received the Innovator of the Year Award for the ZWZ formation and successes.

The City of Atlanta proclaimed November 11, 2014 Affairs to Remember Caterers Day in recognition of sustainability efforts, and in particular the milestone of having diverted one million pounds of recoverable materials from Georgia landfills. The RiA Magazine article, ... and the journey began with a delicious divorce from the landfill!, announces Affairs to Remember Day and showcases Affair's stellar sustainability commitment.

In February 2010, Elemental Impact (Ei) was formed as the new home for the ZWZ. The Ei Speaking Engagement page details the plethora of conferences and other speaking engagements featuring the ZWZ along with accompanying PPT presentations.

National Restaurant Association (NRA)
At the ZWZ Two-Year Anniversary Press Conference, the NRA announced a national collaboration between the Ei | ZWZ and the NRA Conserve Program. At the podium, Scott DeFife, NRA Executive Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs, announced the collaboration with the following statement,
Atlanta’s Zero Waste Zones program has been incredibly successful, and we are now looking to expand that success to communities nationwide. Sustainability is imperative to our industry, other business communities, and the general public. Working with Elemental Impact, we are bringing industry stakeholders together to enable our members to establish - and succeed in reaching - waste diversion and resource recovery goals.
Two-Yr ZWZ Press Conferrence
In late September 2012, the NRA acquired the ZWZ program with intentions to expand the program nationally within the state-restaurant-association network. It was exciting news as the program could evolve and increase its impact within the depth of the NRA's educational, training and policy resources. The RiA Magazine article, National Restaurant Association Acquires the Zero Waste Zones, gives additional details on the monumental purchase.

Post-ZWZ purchase, Ei continued resource-recovery work within the powerful Sustainable Food Court Initiative with a focus on post-consumer food waste, plastic-film recycling, source-separated materials recycling and more. In June 2017, Ei announced the end of the Era of Recycling Refinement (RR) and embarked on the Era of Regeneration.

The 2009 ZWZ launch is at the foundation of Ei's formation and subsequent successes. Though Ei's current work is focused on Soil Health | Regenerative Agriculture and Water Use | Toxicity, the long-term industry connections made and the global respect earned remain strong, empowering. and impactful.