Fostering Sustainable Consumption in U.S. Cities

Eran Ben-Joseph, landscape architect/urban designer


Read the full published paper here:

Final Executive Summary

Since the end of World War II the planet has seen a dizzying rise in material consumption, with a corresponding rise in levels of waste, pollution, and environmental damage from raw material extraction, product manufacturing, and shipping. Neither technological advances nor gains in efficiency have offset demand or created a cycle of sustainable consumption. In recent decades there has been almost no policy action around sustainable consumption and materials management at state, national, and international levels. But, cities around the U.S. and the world have been steadily innovating new ways to shepherd material life-cycles, keep materials in circulation, and even limit the consumption of particularly toxic or difficult to recycle materials. This project examines how U.S. municipalities have used their  waste management programs and policies as levers to influence material consumption and promote sustainable materials management. The project was structured as multi-method; reliant on a largescale survey of municipal waste managers, paired with a series of in-depth qualitative case studies. The combination of the survey and cases yielded a number of important insights. The survey confirmed our expectation that, for the most part, U.S. cities are heavily reliant on waste disposal, and that municipal policies are designed to accommodate a one-way material flow from extraction to landfill. But, the survey also provides descriptive evidence that many cities are investing in novel techniques for limited consumption of toxic and difficult-to-recycle materials, like single-use plastic shopping bags, and other means of promoting waste reduction, such as charging for each unit of waste disposed by households. Further analysis, which was published in July 2017 in Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, indicates that programs such as unit pricing not only support recycling and waste reduction, but also predict municipal investment in more innovative waste management techniques with documented environmental benefits, such as municipal food scrap composting. The six cases yielded additional insights into how key factors constrain and promote innovation in the municipal waste management. The most important finding from the cases is that inclusive planning is essential for tapping into and incorporating lay- and non governmental expertise into the often highly technocratic realm of solid waste planning, but, to successfully implementing changes to waste systems also requires ongoing and creative communication with stakeholders to support difficult behavior changes among everyday city residents. A journal article featuring the cases is currently under review with Journal of Planning Education and Research. A third article that covers the survey results comprehensively is nearing completion. Overall, the findings from the research argue strongly for considering waste management as a necessary, political, and social component of urban sustainability and resilience, rather than as a technocratic domain of municipal service provision.

Proposed Work

The world has seen steadily rising levels of consumption and material flows since World War II. Neither technological innovation nor efficiency gains have proven sufficient to offset rising demand. The environmental community has increasingly turned to the concept of sustainable consumption as a way to combat the rising levels of waste production, material use, and pollution that result from material extraction, manufacturing, shipping, and disposal of consumer products.

Despite being efficient in terms of land, water, and energy use for daily life, cities are hubs of consumption. Moreover, inaction on sustainability at the federal level has put cities on the front line of sustainability policy and practice. As a result, cities are an important testing ground for efforts to reduce consumption. Through this research, we seek to answer the following questions: How and to what extent have U.S. cities made progress towards sustainable consumption? How have the most progressive cities advanced this agenda in practice? What obstacles have they encountered, and how have they overcome those barriers (if they have)? And finally, what prevents other cities from following suit? Although some sustainable consumption practices are taking root among individuals and households, and in some corners of the private sector, this project will focus on how and to what extent government policy at the local level impedes or enables such practices.

To address these questions, we propose to conduct a large-scale survey of 285 municipalities and counties. The survey will target waste managers first and foremost because sustainable consumption initiatives are often driven by a desire to reduce the volume and cost of municipal solid waste. The survey will also target sustainability offices, economic development offices, and other municipal- and county-run programs that directly or indirectly support activities that fall under the umbrella of sustainable consumption—for example, repair and reuse activities, programs to minimize product toxicity, or goods- and skills-sharing programs. The survey will provide baseline data that will allow us to compare places and assess the general state of sustainable consumption programming in U.S. cities.

In addition to the survey we will conduct between 12 and 15 in-depth case studies that assess how and to what extent specific factors influence cities’ efforts to promote more sustainable consumption. We will investigate municipalities that boast effective sustainable consumption programming, as well as those that have struggled to enact meaningful reforms. We will use the cases to identify barriers to more widespread adoption of sustainable consumption practices and to characterize how municipalities have overcome those barriers (or failed to do so).

Ultimately, we plan to offer concrete policy direction to cities, towns, and counties that seek to promote sustainable consumption at the local scale, as well as to be able to describe what kinds of policy action must be taken at larger scales of government. We will disseminate our analysis and our policy prescriptions by producing a highly readable, well-designed report and making it widely available for free on the web. We anticipate posting this report within two years of receiving grant funding from the Environmental Solutions Initiative.