Zero Waste CommunitiesThe zero waste philosophy goes beyond recycling and strives to eliminate waste by reducing consumption and ensuring that products are designed to be Reused, Repaired and Recycled back into nature or the marketplace. The considerable success that communities and firms pursuing a zero waste philosophy have enjoyed suggests that the elimination of the very concept of waste may not be as utopian an agenda as it first seems.

by Aysu Katun, Green Economy Post

Imagine a world where the concept of “waste” does not exist. A world in which nothing gets discarded, every industrial product gets reassembled into something useful, each unit of energy is offset and anything and everything is a renewable resource.

This is the design principle and environmental philosophy of “zero waste”. Zero waste tries to mimic natural systems where there is no such thing as waste since what is waste to one species is food or a resource to another, and there are no toxic substances to cause harm to future generations. In practice, “Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) defines zero waste as “a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

This zero waste philosophy goes beyond recycling and strives to eliminate waste by reducing consumption and ensuring that products are designed to be Reused, Repaired and Recycled back into nature or the marketplace. However, the three Rs apply not just to products at the end of their life span, but to the materials and methods that create them.

Sounds utopian? A growing number of communities worldwide have already adopted zero waste principles, drawn to both its environmental and economic advantages.

  • The first community zero waste plan was adopted by the Australian capital city of Canberra in 1996 with the goal of reaching zero waste by 2010. By 2001 the city had reduced waste sent to landfills by 40 percent and more than doubled the garbage it captured for reuse. The city also began fueling two of its power stations with re-captured methane gas from its landfills, which is enough to power 3,000 homes for 30 years.
  • Over half of the communities in New Zealand have adopted zero waste as a goal.
  • In 2003, the residents of Kamikatsu, a small village in south-west Japan, decided to end their dependence on landfill by 2020 and claim the title of Japan’s first zero waste community. To this end, villagers are sorting out household waste into 34 categories before taking them to the recycling center. While it is not an easy task, Kamikatsu’s recycling rate has soared from 55% a decade ago to around 80% in 2008.

These and many other similar ventures seek to convert existing cities and towns into zero waste locations. However, the zero waste principle is also influencing planners developing new cities such as Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates. The aim of Masdar City is to create a zero carbon, zero waste environment by around 2018. The Abu Dhabi government is to spend $22 billion in creating this completely new town that will purportedly derive 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The population of the new city is expected to be around 50,000. The community of Masdar will have no petrol-driven vehicles within its city walls. Instead there will be a monorail public transport system and, according to Lord Norman Foster, the British architect in charge of planning Masdar City, “driverless electric vehicles below street level that you can operate using your mobile phone. When you dial them up, they take you straight to your destination.” Every building will be sustainable, using only renewable energy sources such as solar power. All waste – even human waste – will be recycled. Manufacturing facilities will be for environmentally friendly products and the city’s water will come from a solar-powered desalination plant.

Is the US falling behind?

Yes and no. Businesses rather than communities have taken the lead in zero waste initiatives in the US. For example, General Motors has confirmed their plans to make approximately half of its 181 plants worldwide “landfill-free” by the end of 2010. Meanwhile, Nike is considered as a leader for zero waste product design, using recyclable polymers, water-based solvents, and fabric woven from used soda bottles. Hewlett-Packard (HP) is another company committed to zero waste. In Roseville, CA, HP has achieved 97% diversion of waste from landfills through initiatives like turning print cartridges into parts for its Scanjet printers.

Admittedly, achieving zero waste in a community is much harder than in a manufacturing plant as the plant has a less heterogeneous waste stream than a city. Even so, several US cities including Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boulder, New York and Austin have also implemented zero waste goals. Since implementing its zero waste program in March of 2005, Berkeley has boosted its diversion rate (diversion of waste from landfills) from 52 percent to 61 percent. San Francisco has the most ambitious zero waste plan. The city’s goals include a 75 percent diversion rate in 2010 and a 100 percent rate in 2020.

These initiatives and results are very encouraging, however, they are still limited. While countries including Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, the Philippines, Norway and New Zealand have successfully implemented comprehensive zero waste policies that eliminate 80 percent or more of all landfill waste, America is recycling about 30 percent of its waste even though 90 percent of the garbage created is reusable, recyclable or compostable.

So why is the U.S. falling so short of its potential in minimizing waste? Several reasons have been suggested:

  • Government subsidies favor wasting and extraction.
  • There is no comprehensive federal plan to maximize recycling and minimize waste.
  • While the EPA penalizes for polluting, there is very little incentive to choose zero waste.
  • True costs of wasting are not factored into today’s prices.
  • Foreign waste imports and US domestic waste exports are uncontrolled under federal law.
  • It is perceived that individual efforts will have minimal impact on solving the waste problem.

Overcoming these barriers is challenging and requires widespread policy reforms that would:

  • Make producers responsible for the waste of the products they create.
  • Encourage businesses to manufacture less toxic products that are reusable, recycled and recyclable by offering them incentives.
  • Put an end to subsidies for non-recyclable waste processing, polluting industries and extraction and harvesting of virgin materials.
  • Promote greater awareness of how to reuse and recycle materials.

For additional action items to achieve zero waste, see steps outlined by ZWIA and GrassRoots Recycling Network.

In an era of landfills reaching capacity, growing concerns about resources and climate change, and the realization that it often costs more to manufacture with virgin materials than to reuse or recycle post-consumer products, developing zero waste communities and businesses makes good sense and should be applauded. Moreover, the considerable success that communities and firms pursuing a zero waste philosophy have enjoyed suggests that the elimination of the very concept of waste may not be as utopian an agenda as it first seems.

© 2010, Aysu Katun. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Aysu Katun (18 Articles)

Aysu Katun is an associate editor at the Green Economy Post. She received her MBA degree from The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, where she focused on sustainability, marketing and strategy. At Fisher, she was a leading member of Net Impact's OSU chapter, which won the Chapter of the Year Award in 2009 . Before beginning her MBA, Aysu worked at Hewlett Packard in Turkey. A passionate traveler, Aysu has been to 27 countries and worked in three. Due to her international experience, Aysu is able to bring a unique perspective to sustainability issues in business.

  • Brooke Farrell

    Good article and description of the zero waste concept. While industry is indeed leading the charge in the US and finding considerable economic advantages to doing so, there is still more that can be done. Many major companies are ‘getting it’, but their supply chains are sometimes slow to move. Our company, RecycleMatch, is working to make it easier for companies to achieve zero waste goals.

    To add to your list of reasons US communities may be behind other countries in adoption of these practices … we have the unique situation of having a vast amount of land and other natural resources. While I certainly don’t believe we should squander those resources, living in a land of plenty creates unique cultural and economic paradigms that are the flip-side for countries with land / resource constraints. We can learn alot from those communities who have done more with less.