After years of efforts to save the planet through recycling, the dynamic has changed. For one thing, China has stopped accepting a lot of U.S. recyclables, perhaps an unintended consequence of President Trump’s trade war.

There is no federal law requiring recycling, so the decision is left to local governments, and because the opportunity to break even financially is disappearing, many of those jurisdictions have given up, and send a lot of recyclable material to landfills.

Recycling critics make some valid points, such as turning an old product into something reusable requires a lot of energy, which causes pollution. They claim recycling is a zero-sum game, where the pollutants and waste from making new products just transfer to the recycling industry.

On the other hand, if all the world’s solid waste goes into the trash, and is multiplied by 7 billion or so people on Earth, that works out to more than 31 billion pounds of waste in landfills — every day. Something to think about on a planet with finite resources and a growing population.

All those conflicting facts are not lost on the decisions-makers with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, who opted not long ago to make the tribe’s business empire holdings zero-waste operations.

It’s an all-in effort on the tribe’s part, which has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, once again, with a national award for environmental stewardship.

Actually, the tribe is just doing what comes naturally. Santa Barbara County and its emphasis on the environment has been a benchmark for other government entities for many years, and is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of the Earth Day movement.

The Chumash have embraced the leadership concept, creating local and national partnerships, and designing innovative programs that couple with an extensive in-house recycling program launched last year.

The results have been impressive. The Chumash Casino Resort has been able to divert nearly 3 million pounds of waste, representing over 90 percent of its overall waste stream, away from local landfills.

EPA regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest Mike Stoker, a former Santa Barbara County supervisor, has been impressed: "The county of Santa Barbara doesn't generate the kind of zero waste like the Chumash. What they are doing is a role model for everyone, and what we all should be doing.”

But, in fact, the Chumash have taken this path for generations. As Native Americans here long before settlers, for the tribe, protecting the region’s resources is simply a way of life. And unlike so many governments these days, the Chumash are playing the long game, thinking in terms of future generations rather than just the next couple of years.

Chumash officials report the tribe is using only about a third of the water that was projected 15 years ago, and nearly three-quarters of that water is being recycled. Not bad, for a reservation that had no running water just three decades ago.

Stoker’s comment about the tribe being a role model for the rest of the county emphasizes the role of the casino’s Facilities Department, whose operating strategy is a "Path to Sustainability,” which includes rethinking conventional wisdom about recycling, reducing and reusing materials, recycling and composting, and generally better managing the products, goods and resources that are used by the tribe’s various businesses.

The tribe even repurposes prepared food from the casino’s buffet, and regularly delivers it to Valley community members in need. By year’s end, the Chumash will have distributed about 2 tons of food.

A role model, indeed.

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