We’ve noticed shifts in public consciousness around how we use and dispose of products. Many people and organizations have made it their mission to keep the conversation going about the negative consequences of specific actions. Such actions or practices range from how industries source and produce items to how we, as a society, use such items.
In this light, many discussions have emerged about why zero waste is now more important than ever. Below, we’ll explore taking a new approach to waste management and how we can better conserve natural resources. This will serve as a guide to materials management and prevent wasting resources.
Apart from zero waste swaps and practices within the home, every society needs a well-defined zero-waste system. This points to the need for zero waste resource management to protect valuable resources and minimize waste. Zero waste is more than an individual practice. It’s an entire system centered around the 4r’s - refusing, reducing, reusing, and recycling.
A zero-waste approach seeks to create a closed-loop system and circular economy. In such an economy, people and the system at large curb waste and champion environmental conservation. You’ll find a solid waste management system and practices that emulate sustainable natural cycles within any zero waste community.
So, what can we learn from such communities? Why zero waste? How can we make responsible production, use, and disposal become the norm? With any zero waste goal, we need to start with responsible resource management.
In its broad sense, resource management entails utilizing available materials and tools effectively and efficiently. It points to how a business, industry, community, or nation manages its resources for best use.
As a result, you’ll find discussions around acquiring, allocating, and managing available resources. The goal is to ensure that people use everything effectively and on budget. Generally, resources can mean many things in many scenarios. For instance, within an organization, resources include labor, natural resources, and capital. These become a focal point for all business processes to ensure everything works in the best possible way.
Resources refer to all the materials within the environment that are available to us. Resources often point to natural sources and materials within the zero waste movement. These include the things we source to make and distribute products. They help us satisfy needs and wants and generally enjoy a good standard of living.
Apart from how consumers discard items, waste also exists at various points in the production process. When we experience growing populations and needs, pressure to produce more regularly follows. As a result, producers acquire more virgin materials and raw materials for production. As more products enter the economy, the percentage of discarded materials increases. This builds waste in the environment.
You’ll find that discharges exist from the point of production to disposal. During production, facilities often emit toxic gases into the air, leading to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At various points, water pollution and waste also become an issue. With these challenges and more, zero waste principles have become more critical than ever. With zero waste goals in place, we can eliminate waste at various points of a product’s entire life cycle, ultimately aiming for none at all.
With various environmental and climate challenges, we need responsible principles. Zero waste is a resource management system that checks the entire life cycle of products.
When many people think of the zero waste approach, it often brings up images of disposal methods. However, the definition of zero waste is more holistic. It includes conserving resources and avoiding land, water, or air discharges. With growing awareness of human impact across these environmental areas, organizations like the Zero Waste International Alliance seek to promote a future without waste. This entails keeping certain items out of the waste stream, thereby freeing up landfill space. It also contributes to a circular system.
Zero waste management increases innovation. It challenges us to create new healthy systems. Zero waste aims to prevent waste, conserve resources, and ensure we can reuse, repair, and recycle products. In the broader sense, less waste means cleaner land sites and air and water bodies in the broader sense. Managing resources towards zero-waste allows us to use resources better, eliminate harmful materials and uphold pollution prevention.
Zero waste means reducing waste at all levels. This system helps us save valuable resources, recover materials, and reduce the waste created. It also protects human, animal, and plant health while building a more robust economy.
Zero waste principles provide guidelines for waste prevention at various levels. Individuals, homes, and businesses use these principles to support their zero waste goals. These principles are:
Many apply these principles to reduce the discarded materials they produce. Everyone needs to recognize that they have a responsibility to the environment and the people on the planet. Not only do zero waste systems benefit the environment, but we’ll also notice the difference in human health. Toxic materials in the air, land, and water affect human life and wellbeing. As a result, we can collectively benefit from a new way of handling material sourcing, production, and disposal.
We must responsibly source materials, use benign materials, establish resource recovery parks, and redefine how we handle solid waste. We need a proper approach to how we use and interact with resources.
To establish a sustainable zero waste system, we need to rethink how we use resources. This goes beyond how we handle things at the point of disposal. Instead, it starts with how we source materials and produce items.
In this light, we need a new approach to managing resources in spaces like business, waste handling, and within communities at large. A zero-waste approach requires changes in three main areas. These areas are production, use, and disposal. Before getting into each category, it’s important to examine the zero waste hierarchy.
The Zero Waste Hierarchy essentially sets the strategies and actions we need to create zero waste systems. Various societies have pollution prevention hierarchies and strategies. However, these often focus on materials rather than establishing new systems for environmental conservation.
To tackle the need for systemic change and address resource-destructive systems, the Zero Waste International Alliance created an in-depth approach. The hierarchy addresses strategies and policies that support a zero-waste system. It guides proposed solutions by addressing the highest and lowest use of materials. The items in the hierarchy from top to bottom are:
This entails returning to the drawing board to rethink product design. This points to redesigning products that contribute to a circular economy. Here, we can design products using unharmful materials and with long lifespans. There’s an extended producer responsibility here to use recycled materials, rethink the supply chain, and create items for reuse.
The goal is to reduce waste. This starts from the quantity and toxicity of materials companies use during production. We also need to uphold sustainable purchasing and choose zero waste products.
We need to maximize reuse at all levels. Companies can reuse materials through recovery programs. On the other hand, consumers can also support maintaining, reusing, repurposing, and repairing items.
This strategy entails protecting and upholding the full use of resources and materials. It entails maximizing diversion from landfills and, instead, allowing for the highest use of materials. This opposes the “use and dump” system. Instead, it recognizes recycling and composting to turn waste into valuable resources.
There are two key points within this section. The first is to promote the recovery of materials and energy through adequate separation of mixed materials. The second is to examine sites like landfills and promote materials recovery in such places. We can also create energy by recovering materials and systems such as waste to energy.
Residuals refer to those items that couldn’t pass through the other sections in the hierarchy. Their presence points back to the need to examine how we can eliminate them from the system. Since they’re already present, it raises points of proper discarding to prevent more residuals in the environment. We need responsibly managed landfills, systems to control toxic residuals, and generally discourage destructive disposal.
Everything under unacceptable refers to the practices we need to avoid to uphold zero waste systems. This includes removing policies that support incineration, destroying materials, and discarding recyclables.
To establish a sustainable system, we can learn from the hierarchy above. Here, we examine how we can adopt production, use, and disposal programs. Let’s see how we can better manage resources across three phases.
Zero waste systems begin with intentional thinking and designs. As we’ve examined in the hierarchy, thinking and design play crucial roles in any zero waste plan. As a result, to create better waste management systems, we need to address production and redesign.
Efficient zero-waste approaches tackle waste prevention at the point of sourcing and production. In this light, businesses play a crucial role in upholding clean production and product redesign strategies. The goal here is to source materials and create products using responsible practices intentionally. This way, we can tackle waste at the beginning stages of production.
Apart from businesses, governments also need to implement policies supporting responsible businesses. Reducing waste streams and instead managing processes efficiently should become a norm. Below are some important programs communities and societies can put in place to support sustainable production:
This takes innovators, entrepreneurs, and business owners back to the drawing board. It poses the question, “how is my product or service contributing to a better world?” Specifically, in this case, it entails rethinking what you put out. As opposed to simply mass-producing items, businesses need to take conscious steps in production.
Today, many companies have systems that focus on creating single-use items. This leads to more consumption and a heavy focus on profits to the detriment of the environment. For instance, single-use plastic products are everywhere. About 98% of these plastic products come from fossil fuels. This not only poses the challenge of consumer plastic waste but also points to the level of greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing.
We can experience products that last longer, are of higher quality, and contribute to a sustainable economy with conscious redesign in mind. This challenges innovators to focus on products that are reusable, recyclable, and compostable products. It also highlights production methods that employ sustainable materials and renewable resources.
Used in conjunction with sustainable product designs, green production can contribute to zero waste systems. This particularly aligns with processes within factories and manufacturing facilities. These facilities must examine damaging practices like disposing of chemicals in rivers and using fossil fuels.
As innovators focus on new ways to redesign products, this ties into the new materials they use. As a result, this flows into prioritizing sustainable systems that serve people, the planet, and profits.
Consumers also have a role to play in supporting a zero-waste economy. The challenge here lies in how we choose and use products and services. What we demand often affects production lines. As a result, we can use our voices to demand sustainable products and environmental and climate justice. Apart from these, here are some other ways we can change the way we use products:
These 3 R’s play crucial roles in consumers’ lives. It challenges us to refuse what we don’t need, reduce what we buy, and use and reuse what we already own.
When people praise and support fast consumption patterns, it poses a great danger to the environment. This leads to overconsumption.
Consequently, items end up sitting in landfill sites. Many toxic materials also flow into water bodies, releasing toxic chemicals into the ocean. When we refuse, we take charge of what we consume and recognize our needs. When we reduce, we focus on what’s important and eventually reduce the waste we produce. When we reuse, we keep products for longer and prevent tossing them out.
The way we discard materials has been a challenge for a long time. Many people are unfamiliar with recyclables and end up throwing them in bins destined to end up in landfills. In many cities, recycling systems are not yet advanced, causing problems in material sorting. Rather than throwing everything out, we need efficient downstream recovery and management systems. As a result, policies and practices need to be in place to answer the question, “what happens to products after disposal?”
Today, several extraction and production processes waste resources. There’s still a heavy focus on non-renewable resources; although changes are blooming in various areas. Rather than ultimately relying on virgin materials and placing a strain on the environment, facilities can recover used items.
In this light, waste becomes a valuable resource that can be processed into new items. New production is often resource-intensive and energy-intensive. New recovery policies can create efficient systems to collect materials and send them to processing centers.
Recycling is one of the ways we can keep materials in a closed-loop system. This ties back to product redesign. Here, businesses need to pay attention to items they can convert to new items if they ever get to the disposal stage. It also challenges societies to focus on high-quality recyclable items.
So, more than just any type of recyclable, we need those that we can recycle infinitely without degrading. Unlike products made from low-grade plastic waste, we can endlessly recycle items from glass and aluminum.
For organic waste, composting becomes the focal point. When organic waste compiles in landfills, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere. Every year, around 931 million tonnes of food go to waste. We can adopt composting as part of our daily practices to curb this. Apart from industrial composting, individuals can take this up by composting kitchen and garden waste.
For a zero-waste society to work, everyone needs to play their part. We need producers who are rethinking processes and redesigning sustainable products. This starts from how they handle natural sources to ensuring that a product's lifecycle has a minimal environmental impact.
Consumers are also responsible for purchasing environmentally friendly products and following sustainable disposal methods. Overall, policies and rules need to be in place to enforce waste-free practices. Policies that praise responsible sourcing, ban careless waste dumping, and support take-back practices can do some good.
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.