Waste management is fast becoming an environmental crisis, and many people are doing their best to tackle the problem by living sustainably. As you learn more about sustainability and the circular economy, there may be terms that could be more clearly differentiated. People easily confuse two of the most common terms: recycling and zero waste.
This zero waste vs. recycling article explains what zero waste and recycling mean, their differences, and their similarities.
According to the World Bank, the world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste yearly1. And at least 33% of that figure is not disposed of with environmental and health concerns in mind. Even solid wastes disposed of properly in landfills constitute an undeniable ecological challenge.
If the world does not adopt waste prevention, reduction, and elimination programs, global waste generation could go up to 3.40 billion tonnes. One environmental impact of current waste systems is that the planet is running out of space for landfills.
The amount of waste also created points to the irresponsible usage of natural resources. Many of these resources are renewable but at a slower rate than we consume them. The United Nations thinks we'll need three extra planets to sustain current habits by 2050 if the population reaches 9.6 billion.
There is no such thing as genuinely throwing waste away; it finds its way back. Waste products leach chemicals, release gases or break down into microscopic pieces that pollute the environment. Pollution hurts plant health, animal health, and human health as well.
Two concepts are prevalent when we talk of sustainable waste management; we have zero waste and recycling. Although they have a common goal of enabling sustainable living, they are inherently different.
Recycling concerns what we do about products that have come to the end of their usefulness for us. It involves reducing waste headed for landfills by reintroducing them as new products. Recycling is one of the methods of managing waste.
To recycle a product, we can reuse it, find other uses for it, or use it to create something new. We can also send it to a recycling plant where they break it down and use the material to make a new product. To that end, people differentiate between down-cycling, upcycling, and recycling.
Many people are familiar with all types of recycling. When you reuse a shoe box as a trinket box, that’s recycling. When you drop it in the recycling bin, you have also done your part in recycling it.
Zero waste is the idea of a production and consumption system that generates no waste. The Zero Waste International Alliance says this approach aims to make the economy emulate sustainable natural cycles where every product is designed to become a resource someday.
A good example is redesigning single-use items to be reusable, durable, and have high recycling value. That means a zero-waste product is designed to be a high-quality item that can stand up to repeated use. And at the end of its use, it still has enough material integrity to be recycled into a new product over and again.
Zero waste means designing waste out of our economy. The "cradle to cradle" approach and circular economy are similar to the zero waste concept. The concepts focus on the entire life cycle of products, addressing the problem of waste from the source.
Zero waste principles dictate that no material is left unused, no resources are overused, and no pollution is released into the environment. So in the zero waste approach, we consider the processes of resource extraction, product design, manufacturing, consumption, and end-of-life circularity.
Read more: Why is Zero waste Important?
Zero waste is a much larger concept than recycling. Recycling is just one step, albeit an essential step, in the zero-waste lifestyle. While recycling asks what to do with waste created, zero waste seeks to eliminate waste.
We examine the differences between the two under the following eco criteria.
Recycling tries to reduce the consumption of virgin raw materials by reintroducing discarded materials into the use stream. It does not account for the other resource waste that occurs during production or due to non-durable design.
The world currently produces much more waste than it can recycle efficiently. Zero waste conserves resources in a way that recycled products alone can't. For example, swapping plastic water bottles for reusable water bottles cuts back fossil fuels more than recycled bottles can.
Recycling is one of the core tenets of sustainable living but is not concerned with the impact of manufacturing processes on the environment. What if the recycling process releases significant greenhouse gasses or toxic wastewater? Recycling can not deal with those issues.
It falls to zero waste to ensure that the recycling process does not release pollutants into the air, water bodies, and land. It also advocates for slow manufacturing as design and quality durability will slow down demand. That means there will be even fewer emissions.
Zero waste principles insist on sustainable and durable product and system redesign that allows for reuse. That means they design zero-waste products to have a far longer period of use than their traditional counterparts.
Recycling does not have any principle that dictates the quality of recycled products. They could be poorly designed and go back into the waste stream after a single use.
Recycling is great, but more than just depending on that alone is needed for a sustainable future. That is because recycling comes with a lot of challenges. For example, some products combine different materials that facilities can not separate for recycling; they cannot be recycled as a single material.
Other challenges include difficulty recovering waste and little or no economic viability of some recyclable materials. It may cost more financially and environmentally to recycle them. Many single-use plastics, for instance, are so flimsy they lack the structural integrity to go through the recycling process.
This does not mean recycling efforts are a waste of time. Recycling is an integral part of zero-waste strategies, but it cannot create the circular economy we desire in isolation. As we have observed, despite an increase in plastic waste recycling, plastic production continues to deplete fossil fuels and release harmful greenhouse gases.
Read more: What Happens To Our Plastic Waste?
On a practical level, the zero waste concept is still very much ideological. It requires a complete overhaul of our economic systems. But it is the only way to ensure the well-being of future generations. Below are some reasons to aspire to a zero-waste lifestyle instead of stopping at just recycling.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050, the world’s population will be up to 10 billion. With just about 7 billion people currently, there are places with severe scarcity of food, water, clean air, and other natural resources.
Some of the earth’s resources are renewable, not infinite. They will run out if we do not implement a system that curbs resource waste. Zero waste wants to bypass the need for new resources and keep used materials flowing through the economy.
Zero-waste living is a better way to tackle climate change. One of its features is extended producer responsibility, which means that manufacturers must systematically avoid production materials and practices that pollute the environment.
Instead of reacting to the problem of waste, zero waste is proactive, solving the problem before it arises. It requires that everyone participate, from product designers to manufacturers, end users, and waste managers, to ensure zero waste resource management.
Compared to the relative rareness of recycling plants, the sheer range of materials used today presents serious operational inefficiencies. Also, if manufacturers keep doubling down on exploiting resources, recycling will be unable to keep up with them.
A few simple lifestyle changes can get you closer to zero-waste living. We briefly discuss them below.
You can reduce your environmental impact by reducing how much stuff you buy. That does not mean that you should deny yourself what you need. Before you make a purchase, be sure you don't have a good alternative in your home already. If you still need to, consider buying thrift before purchasing brand new.
Say no to single-use plastic bottles, grocery bags, and cutleries. Invest in long-lasting, eco-friendly products that you can reuse for years and pass on to other people. Purchase goods with intentionality; buy for quality and real need, not trends. That way, you won't have to replace them too soon.
You can check out our useful guides to zero-waste swaps and zero-waste tips for simple ideas to get you started.
You can reduce the waste you send to landfills by recycling your trash. It is important to understand how to properly curbside recycle so your recycling does not get contaminated and end up in a landfill anyway (read our recycling tips for more info). If you are wondering what to do about unwanted food, donate it or auction it, so it goes to someone who needs it.
Read more: Importance of the 4RS: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
Zero waste living is a proactive approach, while recycling is a reactive approach. To create a greener future for ourselves, we need environmentally responsible production and design as much as we do reuse and recycling. A zero-waste lifestyle would make recycling so much easier and more effective.
|1||Kaza, Silpa; Yao, Lisa C.; Bhada-Tata, Perinaz; Van Woerden, Frank. 2018. What a Waste 2.0 : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050. Urban Development;. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.