You might have heard the city is planning to have “zero waste” heading to landfills by 2040.

How is that possible? It probably isn’t.

Back in 2013, city officials began looking for ways to continue reducing the amount of trash we truly throw away. Already, about 67 percent of the 4 million tons of stuff we discard each year is reused somehow, whether it’s food that is composted, bottles and cans that are recycled or clothes that go to Goodwill rather than a landfill.

The city’s “zero waste” goal is to turn that reuse number into 100 percent, so that nothing we use goes to waste after we’re done with it.

But even in its own planning documents, the city’s ambitious “zero waste” goal is just that – a goal.  The “zero” is almost always in quotation marks.

What the city is trying to do is reduce the true tons of trash to the lowest levels possible. And a “zero waste” plan probably sounds better than a “to the maximum extent feasible, no material will be deposited in a landfill” plan.

Ken Prue, manager of the city’s recycling program, said the “zero waste” plan is about reducing as much as possible what we throw away, even if that’s not absolute zero.

“It’s really rethinking how we treat our waste or our discards and rethinking them as commodities rather than just something we throw in the trash or the landfill,” Prue said.

Right now, the city sends about 1.3 million tons of trash a year to landfills.

By 2020, the city hopes to reduce that amount by 332,000 tons, which would mean that 75 percent of the city’s discarded stuff is being recycled or otherwise reused.

By 2035, the city wants its reuse rate to be 90 percent, so only 10 percent of waste would head to landfills.

By 2040, the city wants to have “zero waste.”

There are a few big steps the city is taking. They city will gradually require that grocery stores and larger restaurants send their food waste to be composted or turned into fuel.

The city is also stepping up efforts to make sure the stuff thrown away in homes and apartment buildings is recycled, rather than just buried in a landfill.

The city will require private trash haulers to make sure 50 percent of the stuff they pick up from residential buildings is recycled. Right now, only about a quarter of that material is recycled.

The city also operates its own free trash collection service, mostly for single-family homes. According to the city’s “zero waste” plan, this subsidized trash pickup hampers the city’s ability to encourage recycling in single-family households because the free service “precludes the creation of the industry standard ‘pay as you throw’ financial incentives for recycling and waste reduction.”

Some have talked about getting rid of that free service, created by the so-called People’s Ordinance, in order to get closer to “zero waste.”

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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