Zero waste has an interesting history, and it’s not just the recent past. The zero waste concept refers to strategies and principles that prevent waste creation and conserve raw materials through sustainable production and consumption. Circular economy and cradle-to-cradle are some other synonymous terms.
We find zero waste resource management programs throughout the world with the refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle message. If you are curious about how the zero waste movement began, read on as we trace its origin.
It is natural for humans to produce waste, and they have always done that. Even when prehistoric humans ate, they discarded seeds and bones. But that type of waste was easily absorbed into the natural cycle; seeds became trees, bones became tools, and animal skins became clothing. There were no toxins or non-biodegradable waste, and there was no need for garbage dumps.
Before the industrial revolution, western households produced little garbage. Repairing clothes and fixing damaged items was the order of the day. People made children’s toys and other household goods from all sorts of items that were no longer useful. People passed things like furniture and jewelry down through generations.
Many families kept livestock and would feed them with whatever leftover food the household couldn't recook. They used animal poop as manure for growing crops; even dog poop was useful in leather making. Circular consumption processes were the norm, and waste was just raw material. So waste production was hardly a cause for concern.
After the industrial revolution and World War II, humans mechanized agriculture, developed new synthetic materials, and invented assembly line production to mass produce goods. Those developments led to excess disposable items that encouraged a throw-away attitude. Mass-produced items became cheaper, so many began buying new things instead of repairing or reusing old items.
But waste does not disappear into thin air. Even if food waste would eventually decompose, plastic which had become and still is a popular, versatile material, is not biodegradable. Plastic breaks down into toxic microplastics and enters the ecosystem. They endanger marine life and human health.
Incineration may deal with the space issue but has a damaging environmental impact like landfilling. Burning solid waste releases a lot of toxic gasses and soot that travel far and contribute to all kinds of respiratory diseases. Incinerators also aggravate global warming as they release greenhouse gases.
No individual can lay claim to starting the modern zero waste movement; it was the culmination of various ideas, social events, political movements, and efforts of many organizations and individuals.
Many things that shaped the zero waste movement happened simultaneously in different places or had overlapping timelines. So the timeline for zero waste history is not linear. However, some names and events stand out, and we discuss them below.
They credit Paul Palmer, a chemist, as the first person to use the term 'zero waste' in public; he coined the term in 19731. Palmer founded Zero Waste Systems Inc in California to reuse valuable chemical waste companies were generating. The company stayed in business for ten years and was successful.
Palmer has written books on various angles of the zero waste concept. Getting to Zero Waste (view on Amazon) is one of his highly acclaimed titles. He also established the Zero Waste Institute, a non-profit that offers learning resources that teach zero-waste principles and methods.
In the 1980s, Daniel Knapp developed the Total Recycling concept, which called for zero burning, zero landfilling, and maximum materials recovery. He developed the 12-sort approach to recycling solid waste4 that many U.S. cities now use for zero-waste planning.
Knapp strongly believes total recycling is possible. In 1995 he toured Australia, speaking to local authorities, business owners, and individuals on how to reduce waste and recover materials from the waste stream.
In 1976, the city of Berkeley, to save landfill space, set up a waste management plan that called for salvaging reusable items. Knapp established Urban Ore in the 1990s to tap into that opportunity. Urban Ore is a store that sells all kinds of second-hand goods, such as furniture, tools, utensils, sports equipment, and so on.
Today, you can walk into the Urban Ore store in Berkeley, California, or buy on the eBay Urban Ore store. Urban Ore actively participates in the politics of sustainability.
The Total Recycling concept was readily accepted in Australia. So much so that local governments in Canberra proposed a “No Waste By 2010 – Waste Management Strategy for Canberra" bill in 1995. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government passed the bill, making Canberra the first city in the world to adopt an official zero waste target.
The vision was to encourage Canberra producers to adopt waste-free production processes and innovate with goods that would not generate waste during and after use. They also wanted to nurture a community that only bought what it needed and prioritized environmental education. Some other vision statements were developing cost-effective resource recovery methods and creating employment in zero-waste industries.
They released a strategy document in 1996 detailing the strategy and expectations. However, the bill hit only some of its zero-waste targets by the end of the implementation period. Nevertheless, Australia continues to make laudable sustainability efforts. In 2021, the country ranked 7th globally for efforts to control plastic pollution.
Before the 1995 bill, various material recovery efforts were underway in Australia. Revolve, a woman-operated landfill salvager team, combed through the landfill waste in Canberra to find useful items they then sold. Today, organizations like Zero Waste OZ, Resource Recovery Australia, Zero Waste Network, etc., champion the cause in the country.
The Grass Roots Recycling Network was formed in 1995 as a reaction to the inefficiency of the National Recycling Coalition in reaching small towns. The GRRN opted to use the term zero waste as their headline slogan and eventually their name.
The GRRN operated from the 1990s till 2002 before the organization morphed into Zero Waste USA. They petitioned the Coca-Cola company to incorporate about 10% recycled plastic into the bottles produced in the U.S. The GRRN increased grassroots recycling and worked to define the expectations of the zero waste concept. They organized programs like Campus Zero Waste with Roger Guttentag and the Refillables project with the ILSR.
Now known as Zero Waste USA, the organization continues to partner with allied groups and individuals across the U.S. to organize events and projects. They offer resources, tools, and training to help communities reduce their waste stream.
Around the late 1980s, New Zealand communities like Waiheke, Raglan, Kaikoura, Kaitaia, and Wanaka had reuse and recycling programs. These initiatives provided jobs and income for local recycling enterprises.
In 1997, The Zero Waste New Zealand Trust was established to reduce waste through a closed-loop economy. The charity organization provided resources and support for zero-waste initiatives.
In 2006, a group established the Community Enterprise Network Trust (CENT) to support community enterprises trading in recycled materials. It soon changed its name to Community Recycling Network (CRN). In 2017, the group changed its name to the Zero Waste Network.
New Zealand was the first country to adopt a national Zero Waste policy3 and continues to deploy it effectively. The country awards waste management innovations and provide waste education through the Zero Waste Academy. Also, they actively encourage community group recycling operations.
The late Warren Snow was a zero-waste advocate and strongly influenced the zero-waste movement in New Zealand. He founded and co-founded many zero-waste and sustainability advocacy organizations. Some organizations include New Zealand Product Stewardship Council, Zero Waste International Alliance, New Zealand’s Community Business and Environment Centre, and Envision.
Snow hosted the world's first zero-waste conference in Kaitaia in 2000. He was a prolific speaker on zero waste issues and consulted for many industries and governments. Many people note that Snow was unwavering in his stand for a zero-waste economy, even in the face of heated criticisms. He strongly believed in a zero-waste future.
While he was alive, he mentored and supported many people who wanted to find their way around zero waste. He also consulted for businesses and communities on zero-waste planning strategies. He passed away in August 2022.
California is one of the first States in the USA to adopt an official zero-waste strategy. In 2000, Del Norte County took the initiative to set up a comprehensive zero-waste plan. It was the first County to do so in California and the USA. The following year, the California Integrated Waste Management Board adopted a state-wide zero-waste strategic waste management plan.
The plan would require the effort of individuals, industries, and the government. The goal was to recycle all solid waste back into the marketplace or nature. That meant if a product wasn't reusable or recyclable, then it had to be biodegradable. A lot of emphasis was laid on responsible consumption practices as well. The plan also specified that we must make all zero-waste efforts without further causing harm to humans or the environment.
California is still making giant strides. They recently passed a bill, SB 54, requiring all packaging to be recyclable or compostable by 2032. In an interview, Ruth Abbe, president of Zero Waste USA, notes that only two incinerators are left in California, and several environmental justice groups are working to shut them down.
In 2002, San Francisco took a step that made it notable in the zero waste movement history. The state set a goal to divert 75% of its waste by 2010. It not only achieved this goal two years ahead of time but went on to record an 80% diversion rate. This was an important win for zero-waste advocates because it exemplified the possibilities they believed in.
Working with the Precautionary Principle, San Francisco initiated an Environment Code in 2003. The code ties together the city’s regulations on sustainability, natural resources, and environmental protection. In 2006, it adopted an ordinance to recover construction and demolition debris. The Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance compels San Francisco households to separate compostable waste from recyclables.
The city launched the first urban food scraps composting program in the U.S. The program is the largest in the US and has collected over two million tons of compost. San Francisco continues implementing zero-waste initiatives and working with zero-waste and climate change organizations.
The Zero Waste International Alliance is one of the most influential zero-waste international organizations. Its members are internationally recognized Zero Waste experts. The Alliance was ultimately the result of a 2002 workshop devoted to Zero Waste. Richard Anthony, a board member of the GRRN, proposed the idea to the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) and GRRN. Both organizations provided support to hold the workshop.
After that forum, some activists and experts attended a meeting chaired by Professor Robin Murray. In that meeting, they created the Zero Waste coalition for the United Kingdom and also had preliminary talks on the formation of ZWIA. In retrospect, they now refer to this meeting as the first Zero Waste dialogue.
In 2003, the first official meeting of ZWIA was held on 19 October at The Bulkeley Hotel, Beaumaris, Wales. They could discuss and establish the institution at an international gathering in Wales. It was on that date that ZWIA was officially established. The organization has had many more Zero Waste dialogues. At these dialogues, they discuss with key players from industries and governments to create zero waste policies, programs, and strategies.
Over the past decade, some individuals have distinguished themselves as advocates for waste-free living and established themselves as zero-waste influencers. Bea Johnson, an author, speaker, and minimalist, is one such person. She lives by the ‘5 Rs’ of zero waste; refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. She managed to keep her family's trash to one jar per year.
Johnson's family adopted a zero-waste lifestyle in 2008, and she shares her journey on her blog, Zero Waste Home. She also published Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste (view on Amazon). She inspires thousands of people online and at her talks by showing that going zero-waste can be rewarding and achievable.
Other notable events in the zero waste movement
The Zero Waste International Alliance currently defines zero waste as "the conservation of all resources using 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.”
The zero waste hierarchy is shown below
But the zero waste concept is not without some limitations and criticisms; some of them are;
Lack of support
Not everyone supports the zero-waste movement; many believe that a zero-waste lifestyle is not a realistic expectation. Others say that zero-waste strategies are too expensive to implement, especially for individuals. Some critics believe zero waste will just lead to the consumerism of sustainable goods.
Some of these critics are industry leaders or top government officials. Their position of authority allows them to influence policies, resource extraction methods, and product design. Their opinion of the zero waste concept will reflect in their decisions.
We have seen institutions, agencies, corporations, and governments implement zero-waste practices at different levels. The hierarchy describes the ideal progression of strategies, but sometimes people focus on one aspect at the cost of ignoring others.
One challenge of the zero-waste lifestyle movement is that many stakeholders focus on more than just recycling. Many large corporations gloss over earth-friendly production and circular product design and just hope to reuse leftover or discarded products. Diverting solid waste from landfills and incinerators is great, but the zero waste movement's goal is not to create waste in the first place.
More so, while the recycling facts show rates for solid waste are on the rise, recycling cannot divert enough waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the US recycles at a national rate of just 32%2. Meanwhile, examples of low-zero waste countries show that policy can improve recycling rates and reduce waste creation.
Inaccessibility to sustainable products or facilities
Geographical barriers are another challenge that people who want to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle face. The movement is not present in all places equally. People living in developing countries or rural areas are often left out without the benefits of zero-waste stores and a variety of recycling and sustainability incentives.
Greenwashing and near-sustainable products
Zero Waste products are the rave of the moment, and many companies are taking advantage of that without doing the real work. Greenwashing is a tactic that companies use to sell their products using bogus sustainability claims.
Some other products are only partially sustainable. For example, if they are made of recycled materials but are single-use products. Critics often point to these greenwashed or near-sustainable goods as failings of the zero-waste concept.
Lack of technology
Only some zero-waste ideas that sound great in theory are practicable now. That is because the technology they need to implement them has yet to be created. Some that do are very expensive, and only a few stakeholders can afford them.
Further reading: Pros and Cons of Zero Waste
Today ‘zero waste’ is used widely in mainstream media to encompass the idea of an economy that designs waste out of its system. Many local and international organizations, campaigns, or projects ally with that idea using the term as a go-to description.
The key idea behind the zero waste concept is to use resources responsibly. That way, we can reverse climate change and preserve the planet for future generations.
Zaman, A. (2022). Zero-Waste: A New Sustainability Paradigm for Addressing the Global Waste Problem. In: Edvardsson Björnberg, K., Belin, MÅ., Hansson, S.O., Tingvall, C. (eds) The Vision Zero Handbook. Springer, Cham.
New Zealand Green Plan – Resource Renewal Institute (RRI). (n.d.). New Zealand Green Plan – Resource Renewal Institute (RRI). Retrieved January 12, 2023
Daniel Knapp, BA ’62 | Clark Honors College. (n.d.). Daniel Knapp, BA ’62 | Clark Honors College. Retrieved January 12, 2023
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.