What is zero waste exactly? And how does it make us reevaluate the way we view and use our natural resources? Here, we look at exactly what the zero-waste system entails and how it aims to reduce the environmental impact of our disposable culture and address climate change issues at the same time.
What is zero waste…really?
The definition of zero waste according to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is as follows:
“Zero waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
At its core, zero waste takes aim at our “take, make, and waste” approach to production and consumption, encouraging a more circular approach to the way we use resources. On its most basic level, this means that the goal of zero waste is to push economies towards the target of sending no waste to landfill, incinerators, and the ocean.
However, while recycling and conscientious waste management remain core to achieving that goal, zero waste extends much further than simply dealing with “end-of-life” waste. In fact, it examines the entire lifecycle of a product or material, highlighting inefficiencies and unsustainable production and consumption practices. Zero waste refers not only to keeping waste out of landfill, but also pushing our economy to be less wasteful in production and consumption.
For those asking whether zero waste is realistic, the answer is clear. Zero waste is not merely an end goal, but a set of guiding principles that strive towards eliminating waste at any and all stages of the chain. From resource extraction through production to consumption and management of discarded materials, the aim is to close the loop, redefining the entire concept of waste and ensuring resources remain in use for as long as possible before being returned to the earth with little to no environmental impact.
What are the zero waste principles?
The zero waste principles include three underlying obligations that target different sections of society:
Each represents a specific stage of the waste stream. Producers are at the front end, and they must take responsibility for product design and manufacturing. The Community sits at the back end, taking responsibility for consumption and disposal. In between, political responsibility must bridge the gap between community and producer, promoting both environmental and human health while enforcing new laws designed to promote the zero waste principles.
The principles themselves are as follows, however, they are also constantly expanding to meet new challenges that arise as we continue to explore the realities of a zero waste economy.
- Design closed-loop systems
- Ensure processes (manufacturing, recycling, etc.) happen close to the source
- Conserve energy
- Don’t export harmful waste
- Engage the community and promote change
- Keep products and materials in the loop as long as possible
- Build systems that provide feedback for continuous improvement
- Support local economies
- Promote materials as resources
- Minimize polluting discharges to land, water, and air
- Consider the true costs of opportunities
- Promote the Precautionary Principle
- Promote the Polluter Pays Principle
- Develop adaptable, flexible, and resilient systems
What are the zero waste hierarchy and cradle-to-cradle thinking?
An important distinction between zero waste and conventional waste management and recycling is the prevention of wasteful practices at the start of the chain. This is otherwise known as cradle-to-cradle thinking, which stands in direct opposition to cradle-to-grave thinking. Here’s what the terms mean:
- Cradle-to-grave – A linear model that begins with resource extraction, moves through manufacturing, and sees products end up in landfill. Considered an “open-loop” system that is inherently wasteful.
- Cradle-to-cradle – A circular model that minimizes waste and keeps resources in use for as long as possible. Considered a “closed-loop” that promotes sustainability and strives for zero waste through reduction, reuse, and recycling.
An example of cradle-to-cradle thinking is found within the sustainable natural cycles of organic farming and composting, and this efficient process serves as the perfect archetype for the broader concept. Food is grown using natural methods without harmful chemical pesticides or fertilizers and is distributed and consumed (ideally using carbon-neutral distribution channels and reusable/compostable packaging). Once consumed, any food waste is composted, closing the loop as the compost contributes to the growing of more food.
However, while this simple and elegant example of the cradle-to-cradle concept works well with organics, when it comes to more complex products there is a clear need to reevaluate our approach. Here, the zero waste hierarchy comes to light, essentially expanding the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) to encourage policy-making, activity, and investment in systems that promote the cradle-to-cradle concept.
Zero waste hierarchy principles:
Use reused, recycled, or sustainably gathered non-toxic materials. Incentivize cyclical materials and extended producer responsibility for the entire lifecycle of a product.
Sustainable purchasing that supports social and environmental concerns and local markets, or take back programs to avoid disposal of products. Minimize the quantity and toxicity of materials while planning for consumption habits to minimize waste.
Optimize the reuse of materials and products through repair, refurbishment, modular technologies, and repurposing in alternative ways.
Recycle / Compost
Support and expand existing systems that allow for high-quality recyclables and materials. Build local markets for collection and processing of recyclables. Promote decentralized composting at home.
Optimize material recovery and only use energy recovery systems that operate at biological temperatures and pressures.
Minimize polluting gasses and toxic residuals from materials. Encourage the preservation of resources and minimize destructive disposal methods.
Disincentivize and remove support for the incineration of waste and waste-to-energy systems. Remove all toxic residuals from consumer products and in building materials.
What Is the zero waste movement?
The zero waste movement is the collective pursuit of the zero waste principles, and as its popularity grows, individuals and communities around the world are helping push the agenda further. One of the most visible of many initiatives that are illuminating our consumption and waste generation habits is the ‘Mason Jar Challenge’ where participants reduce their waste down to a single mason jar over one year. However, the zero waste movement is gathering steam, and there are many more initiatives in the pipeline.
In fact, people taking responsibility for their own waste production is only the tip of the iceberg and by increasing awareness around the issue, both politicians and producers will be forced to take more responsibility. Zero-waste stores, zero-waste agriculture, zero-waste fashion, and even entire zero-waste lifestyles and jurisdictions are now entering the mainstream, with more people than ever striving to meet zero waste principles.
Today, the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) positions itself as the only peer-reviewed authority on the topic, and its guiding principles are among the most comprehensive. They ask the community:
- To adopt the ZWIA definition of the concept
- To establish benchmarks and a timeline for the zero waste agenda
- To engage the whole community – local, national, and international
- To demand the management and conservation of all resources and not just the management of waste
- To implement levies and taxes on waste that is sent to landfill
- To perform zero waste assessments
- To build separation and research facilities for residuals
- To develop rules, laws, and incentives to promote zero waste
- To enforce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws
- To remove government subsidies that allow and promote waste
- To expand zero waste infrastructure
What are examples of zero waste?
Before the advent of single-use packaging and today’s “disposable” mindset, zero waste was a feature of certain business systems simply because it was cost-effective and convenient. Examples include traditional milk rounds that relied on reusable and returnable glass bottles for delivery. Milk was delivered each morning in heavy-duty glass bottles, which were returned by the customer to be cleaned and used again.
In this example, the raw materials used to manufacture the glass are kept in the loop, with minimal waste generated when washing, heat treating, and capping bottles. Arguably, true zero-waste is never achieved, however, assessments of the lifecycle of the various packaging options show that glass produces far less waste than contemporary materials.
Unfortunately, like milk, many businesses that worked in similar ways were largely swallowed by single-use plastic packaging. However, over the last decade, examples of zero-waste thinking have been on the rise, particularly within sustainability-focused companies, but also within mainstream businesses that are slowly beginning to embrace waste reduction.
For example, Patagonia has championed the call for more sustainable products and business practices since the 1980s, focusing on waste reduction and circular materials as part of a push towards zero waste. Perhaps most famously, the brand kickstarted a circular marketplace, Common Threads, where customers can swap, donate, or sell old garments. Additionally, garments that are at the end of their lifecycle can be returned to Patagonia where they are recycled into the materials that make up 70% of new Patagonia products.
With governments shackled by slow moving processes and businesses still practicing “greenwashing” (whether knowingly or otherwise), zero-waste thinking has taken root at local level, with various communities around the world implementing their own programs and initiatives to improve solid waste management in their area.
Often the result of citizen-led actions, but also supported and furthered by municipalities and other organizations, these zero-waste communities have promoted circular values in a variety of ways, sometimes even gaining certification with novel zero-waste plans. Below, we look at a few examples of how zero-waste communities have defined circular thinking.
San Francisco, United States
San Francisco set out its zero-waste goals in 2003, pledging to reach zero waste by 2020. Very quickly, the realization that this lofty goal was unreachable in such a short timeframe, however, the city is still a leading light in waste reduction and management.
San Francisco was the first US city to make curbside composting mandatory, as well as banning non-recyclable, non-compostable single-use containers for foodservice in 2007. Today, this has meant an 80% reduction of waste going to landfill, making the city a globally recognised leader in zero waste.
What began as a protest against the construction of a waste incinerator at the turn of the millennium, soon grew into something much bigger for Rossano Ercolini and the residents of Cappanori. Having successfully stopped construction, Ercolini teamed up with zero-waste expert Dr. Paul Connett to find alternatives to landfilling waste, and by 2010, an estimated 82% of waste was successfully diverted.
Following suit, the municipality implemented its own initiatives such as restoring public water springs to discourage using bottled water and offering subsidized washable diapers to new parents. Today, Cappanori is home to Europe’s first dedicated zero-waste research center.
Setting out its zero-waste goals back in 2003, Kamikastu famously asks its residents to sort waste, including hazardous waste such as batteries, into 45 different types. This means separating products made from multiple materials and washing everything before it’s sent to the recycling station.
Today, Kamikatsu recycles, composts, and reuses more than 80% of materials, bucking the trend for a country that is the second largest producer of plastic in the world and that incinerates 78% of solid waste.
Online zero-waste communities
Online zero-waste communities have thrived over the past decade, connecting zero-waste thinkers from around the world. Reddit’s r/ZeroWaste community boasts more than 400,000 users, while other popular websites such as Anne-Marie Bonneau’s Zero Waste Chef are helping people learn how to apply zero-waste principles at home.
Placing itself firmly at the forefront of the zero-waste movement, ZWIA (Zero Waste International Alliance) is also an internationally recognized source for zero-waste standards. “Working towards a world without waste through public education and practical application of Zero Waste principles, ZWIA’s mission is to drive systemic change using environmental and social justice principles.
Why zero waste?
As of the last EPA report in 2018, the total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) was 292.4 million tons, with only 94 million tons recycled and composted. Today, figures from the 2022 Global Waste Index point to the fact that the US leads the world in waste generation, suggesting that these statistics are already well out of date.
The Global Waste Index highlights that, on average, US citizens produce around 1787 pounds of trash per year (4,5 lbs more than 2019), with half of this amount ending up in landfill. Additionally, around 211 pounds is incinerated, with the waste-related impacts of the COVID pandemic only now coming to the fore.
Zero waste to landfill must become a priority if we are to reduce the harmful effects to the environment and the release of CO2, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other damaging greenhouse gasses. Additionally, leachate from landfills enters our groundwater and pollutes farmland and drinking water.
At our current waste generation levels, the recycling industry cannot hope to keep up with demand, and while recycling is highly important to the zero-waste movement, it must not be so heavily relied on. Additionally, the extra resources and emissions associated with the recycling industry can and should be designed out, using better resource management and by encouraging producer responsibility.
Finally, if we hope to address the destructive impact of climate change then zero waste and a more circular economy are truly our most sensible and sustainable options.
For more information on zero waste, the ZWIA website is an excellent resource, and the EPA’s Transforming Waste Tool is also extremely useful. For the latest information and news on the zero waste movement, and how you and your business can continue to strive for the zero waste principles, then subscribe here and stay in the loop!