What is zero waste exactly?

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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.

Why zero waste?

According to the EPA, only around 30% of the US waste stream is recycled and around 140 million tons of waste is sent to landfill each year. When it comes to single-use plastics only around 9% are recycled.

Landfills cannot continue to hold our waste, they are not only harmful to the environment, but they also release CO2, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other harmful 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.” Ariel Vallarino, Executive Vice President of Latin America of UNLAT.

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.

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