skip navigation
Share this:

Local Governments Pursue Zero-Waste Measures

An image of 3 people at a recycling center sorting out types of recycled material

As local governments look to reduce greenhouse gases and be responsible stewards of community resources, zero-waste strategies and policies are increasingly being included in municipal plans for waste management, climate action, or sustainability.

This is mirrored at the state level where the legislature has passed many zero-waste bills. Some have been inspired by existing programs/policies at the local level, such as ESHB 1047, establishing a statewide prescription medicine return program, or ESSB 5323, banning single-use plastic carryout bags. Other bills simply move the state towards its goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such as ESHB 1114, establishing statewide food waste reduction goals.

This blog will look at why an agency might choose to develop zero-waste goals, what some local governments in Washington are doing, and resources that can help.


Waste and consumed goods that become waste are rapidly growing sources of GHG emissions. A zero-waste approach is to minimize, recover, and treat waste, rather than dispose of it.

RCW 70A.205.715 tasks the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) with adopting a food waste reduction plan, identifying baseline food waste data, and annually measuring progress toward statewide food waste reduction goals. Ecology’s Use Food Well Washington Plan (Plan) offers 30 recommendations for reducing waste across all sectors of the food system. One suggestion is to tie funding incentives to existing food loss and waste measurements, which several local government waste funding programs do, including King County’s commercial food waste grants, Seattle Public Utility’s Waste-Free Communities Matching Grants, or Tacoma’s Sustainability Small Grants.

The Plan also suggests partnering with existing programs and organizations to provide education on small-scale zero-waste strategies for consumers. On such successful effort is the Clark County Green Neighbors, which is led by the county public health department but partners with City of VancouverRepair Clark CountySNAP-ED and Washington State University Extension, and Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries. Its Conscious Consumption Series combines workshops, events, and presentations (held at library branches) to help residents learn about food waste reduction, worm bin composting, sustainable fashion, crafting with recycled materials, and more.

Similarly, Managing and Transforming Waste Streams, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers 100 policies local governments can implement, ranging from the broad, such as establishing diverse waste collection services, to more specific, such as best practices and clauses for contracts and franchise agreements for waste haulers. Other specific suggestions include zero-waste event planning: See, for example, Olympia’s Zero-Waste Events Planning Page and Guide, or Skagit County’s Zero-Waste Events, which provides education, technical assistance, free recycling bins rental, and zero-waste logo certification for event coordinators who register private or public events with the county.

Zero-Waste Spotlight

Here are two county examples of local government zero-waste programs, in King and Skagit, each tailored to meet the needs and strategic goals of the county.

King County: Promoting sustainable purchasing

King County Code 18.20 requires county department to purchase sustainable goods and services whenever these meet price, performance, and availability requirements. The county maintains a Sustainable Purchasing webpage and Guide to help county personnel identify, evaluate, and purchase products and services. These programs are backed by policies, such as a 2018 Sustainable Purchasing Policy, which requires county departments to purchase 100% recycled copy paper, implement paper conservation strategies, and use only recyclers that meet specific standards for computer and electronics recycling

The county’s 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan for reducing GHG emissions, includes Focus Area 5: Consumption and materials management (see pages 98-115), which offers strategies that continue to refine the county’s internal operations and procurement efforts. Strategy GHG 5.6.1 calls for the development of a countywide unified waste management system and employee training regarding waste prevention and reuse practices. Strategy GHG 5.7.1 prioritizes optimizing print management efficiencies through new procurement practices and the use of managed print services, and Strategy GHG 5.8.1 requires bid solicitations for county projects include requirements and specifications for low emission alternatives for concrete, asphalt, wood, and steel.

One result of its ongoing efforts is that the county now purchases 100% recycled copy paper and reduced paper usage by 24% from 2010 to 2020, resulting in cost savings.

Snohomish County: Reducing waste at the county fair

Snohomish County’s Evergreen State Fair (Fair) is a popular, county-run fair that attracts 350,000 visitors annually over a 12-day period. In 2014, the county launched the Zero-Waste Fair Initiative, with the goal of diverting 100% of fair waste through recycling, composting, and waste-reduction strategies. This initiative was included the county’s 2013-2017 Sustainable Operations Action Plan.

One of the first activities was to replace traditional garbage cans located throughout the fairgrounds with three-stream zero-waste stations to sort and collect recyclables, compostables, and garbage. The stations include educational signage and are staffed by teenagers (during the Fair) to help inform visitors on what can/can’t go into each bin.

The county also installed high-efficiency hand dryers, water bottle refill stations, and rain gardens throughout the fairgrounds, replaced old incandescent lighting with more efficient bulbs, and sends animal bedding and waste generated during the Fair to a biodigester plant in Monroe, which turns the waste into energy and compost. Food vendors must use compostable food service ware and the county has specific recycling and food waste requirements for all vendors.

According to a 2016 King 5 article, the Fair generates roughly 120 tons of waste annually, but through the Zero-Waste Fair Initiative, it was able to cut that amount in half. The county council passed Resolution 19-015 in 2019, which calls for expanding the Zero-Waste Fair Initiative to a year-round effort for all fairgrounds events and operations.

Technical Assistance and Funding Opportunities

Fortunately, for those local governments interested in expanding or undertaking zero-waste initiatives, there is both technical assistance and funding available.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international environmental nonprofit, is expanding its Food Matters program, with a goal of helping cities with populations of 200,000 or more develop strategies around food waste reduction, recovery, and recycling. Food Matters provides technical assistance, such as estimating food waste generation, assisting with food waste reduction, planning, and messaging, facilitating support for edible food recovery programs, or expanding community composting. Interested cities must fill out an online form by February 17, 2023.

The EPA is currently offering two grant programs related to zero waste, both of which have had their application deadlines extended to February 15, 2023.

  • The Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling Grants are for projects that build and transform solid waste infrastructure, equitably reduce waste and manage materials to achieve a circular economy, reduce GHG emissions, and create cleaner, more resilient, and healthier communities. Eligible entities include states, local governments, territories, and Tribal governments.
  • The Consumer Recycling Education and Outreach Grants fund activities that prevent or reduce waste by reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, recycling, composting, or using anaerobic digestor systems to treat these types of materials or to reduce related contamination. Eligible entities include states, territories, local governments, Tribal governments, nonprofit groups, and public-private partnerships.

More information, including FAQs, webinar recordings, and the request for applications (RFA) can be found on each program webpage as linked above.

In Washington State, Ecology offers Waste Reduction and Recycling Education grants for local government programs designed to help the public with waste reduction, recycling, and composting. The application process is expected to open this summer.


Since zero-waste efforts encompass both the broad (sustainable materials management) and the targeted (re-use/repair events), local governments can tailor activities to meet strategic goals, but also to utilize existing resources within their communities.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Leah LaCivita

About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.