Have you heard ‘Zero Waste’ lately? It is a trending search term, just like other sustainability concepts such as the circular economy and ethical or sustainable fashion. The term implies a complete absence of waste. However, is it possible for humans to produce 100% zero waste? Probably not. But the zero waste philosophy has gained acceptance from governments and individuals globally.
This article will help you understand why zero waste is an important concept.
The ‘Zero waste’ philosophy is based on the idea of managing materials in ways that preserve value, reduce environmental impact, and conserve natural resources. It seeks to ensure that products can be repaired, reused, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Implementing zero waste requires switching from waste management via incinerators and landfills to a value-added resource recovery system.
The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as the conservation of all resources through responsible consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials. Its implementation will eliminate the burning or burying of waste and prevent all discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
The Solid Waste Association of North America sums up zero waste as all efforts to reduce solid waste to almost nothing through reduction of excess consumption and maximizing solid waste recovery through composting and recycling2.
Some definitions of zero waste emphasize recycling and composting as a way to reduce waste. However, the zero-waste concept goes beyond recycling and composting at a product’s end-of-life. It spans the entire process from design to raw material sourcing to production and finally disposal.
The zero-waste approach requires innovative design and management of products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of materials systematically. It tackles the problem of waste by encouraging and creating strategies for eco-friendly production and packaging, and resource management. And producing more durable products that are easily disassembled or biodegrade at the end of their useful life.
One goal of zero waste is to guide people in making changes to their lifestyles that emulate sustainable natural cycles. In natural cycles, discarded materials become resources for others to use. It does not focus only on natural resources alone but also on energy consumption and efficient manufacturing.
There are two sides to zero waste; we have the practical side, which deals with consumer actions and aims at inducing behavioral changes. And the conceptual aspect is concerned with systematic design and function to prevent waste.
Both aspects are important to establishing a zero-waste economy. However, the bulk of the responsibility falls on the product designers and manufacturers.
According to the EPA, the hierarchy of materials management are as follows3:
This hierarchical arrangement shows which areas’ efforts are needed the most and where they would have the most economic and climate / environmental impact. The design and production stage is the most important; 80% of a product’s impact on the environment is determined at that stage. If manufacturers fail to implement zero waste principles in product design, there is only so much the consumer can do. 80% of discarded consumer goods in MSW end up burned or landfilled because of poor design and lack of end-of-life solutions6.
We can achieve zero waste communities through action plans that significantly reduce waste and pollution. A good zero waste strategy ensures that tools for implementation are available to everyone at all levels. Many communities are playing their part in establishing a zero-waste system.
For example, Toronto’s ‘extended producer responsibility’ requires importers and local producers to take responsibility for the waste generated from their products, thereby reducing climate impact. The Texas city council has an ambitious goal to divert 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040. Los Angeles has a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2025. Dubai has reduced the movement frequency of garbage trucks by 90% and the cost of waste collection by 60%5.
The zero-waste philosophy views trash as valuable resources that present an opportunity for communities to create new jobs and products. It is also a way to combat climate change and pollution. Below are some key benefits of zero waste.
Zero waste can be a climate solution. Not only because it reduces the trash, we produce but also embodies waste-free and environmentally friendly production and distribution. It ensures that the entire life cycle of the product leaves no negative impact on the environment.
According to the estimations made by the EPA, 42% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the production and consumption of products. Extracting and processing raw materials requires large amounts of energy that are often provided by fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuel generates large quantities of carbon dioxide.
Transporting materials and products also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Freight emits 50% of road transport emissions in urban areas. The landfill and incineration methods of waste management also produce GHG emissions. Solid waste management accounts for 5% of global CO2e emissions. A zero-waste approach to production, consumption and disposal will significantly reduce the amount of waste sent to the landfill. And this will directly cut down on pollution.
The use of recycled materials in road construction can cut down emissions connected to brick and asphalt roads by 28% and 37%, respectively. Reusing electronic waste generated in China could bring down the electronic industry’s greenhouse gas emissions by 24 million tonnes by 2030.
The prevalent linear economy extracts resources from the environment using the quickest and cheapest methods, regardless of their environmental impact. There is an unsustainable gap between the rate at which humans consume resources and the time it takes the earth to renew these resources.
It takes 1.5 years for the planet to regenerate the natural resources we consume in a year1. And 13% of global resource use is connected to the transport sector.
The zero-waste system helps to conserve natural resources. Implementing its policies in China's electrical appliance industry could reduce its reliance on virgin materials by 14% in 2040. Globally, zero waste could help save materials worth up to $700 billion a year.
Zero-waste manufacturing processes are also energy efficient. It takes 20 times less energy to make an aluminum can from recycled materials than raw materials.
Furthermore, applying zero waste strategies to food supply management can greatly reduce the $31 billion worth of food that goes to waste each year. Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council (UK) saved GBP 60,000 in landfill and mobility costs by recycling 95% of its waste highway materials.
They reuse 85% of an old truck tire at Michelin’s tire retreading plant, saving about 30kg of rubber and 20kg of steel on each retreaded tire. The resource conservation benefits of zero-waste ensure that future generations do not suffer scarcity.
About 20% of municipal budgets are spent on waste management. If we produce less waste, budget allocations for its management will reduce. They could divert the saved allocation to funding more essential projects.
The zero-waste system has opened doors for waste-based businesses to exist and thrive. In Toronto, Canada composting and diversion programs create ten times more jobs than disposal does.
Recycling in the automobile industry can boost the job market demand by 120%. Business opportunities in the zero waste system are not exclusive to the recycling industry alone. The repair and reuse sectors also have a significant share in the job market. Repairing 1,000 tonnes of discarded electronics creates 13 times more jobs than recycling the same amount. Using Europe as a case study, reuse creates 80 jobs per 1,000 tonnes of collected municipal waste.
These 5 R’s are basic zero waste actions anyone can take4. You can start with the one that is easiest for you and gradually ease into the other action plans.
Do not accept packaging and products that you don’t need. This is centered on conscious consumerism. It requires that you stop avoidable waste from entering your life in the first place. You can do this by choosing reusable products. Taking your reusable bags or cans to the grocery store cuts out the need for single-use plastic packaging. Refuse freebies you don’t need instead of letting them clutter your home.
For products that you can not refuse, adopt a minimalistic purchase method. Don't buy what you don't need because you will only be buying waste. Resist impulse buying and be deliberate about the way you shop. Cut down on how much you buy by getting reusable or multi-use products. This helps you reduce the amount of trash you put in the recycle bin or send to landfills. You can donate unwanted items.
Find creative ways to reuse items before putting them in the recycle bin or the trash. Reusing entails repurposing an item for a different use than the original purpose. It is a way to prolong the useful life of a product. Reusing ensures that people repair products or upcycle them.
Recycling is a process that turns waste into new goods. Much of the waste people generate is recyclable, but not everyone recycles it. You must put every material that can be recycled in the recycle bin. Also, make an effort to sort your waste correctly, not to send materials to landfills.
Food waste can not go into the recycling bin, but we can compost it. Ideally, food waste rot and become soil nutrient, but without proper composting measures in place, it can cause pollution. Therefore, when organic waste can not be recycled, do not send them to the landfill. Let them rot in a compost system and benefit the planet.
Zero waste generation is key to making a circular economy a reality. But one thing to keep in mind is that it can not happen with the snap of a finger. It requires consistent efforts from governments and individuals. So, if you keep doing your part, we can build a world where waste does not exist.
International Institute for Sustainable Development (2020) Effects of the Circular Economy on jobs.
Sevcan Ekmekcioglu and Deniz Ekmekcioglu (2020) The users' approach to zero waste according to five 'R'. 3rd International Conference on Life and Engineering Sciences. Istanbul, Turkey.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Urban mobility system. Circular Economy in Cities.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Urban products system summary. Circular Economy in Cities.