Making Sense of Zero Waste

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When most people think of zero waste, they think of a near impossible and impractical goal.

They think that zero waste means not generating any waste or that all the waste that is generated has to be recovered, reused or recycled. Zero waste is much more than these narrow views envision. A new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and  Lessons from Around the World, provides a realistic view of what zero waste is by providing examples of how it is being applied and offers great hope of what it can be.

The report makes clear that zero waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by ending waste disposal practices that use incinerators, dumps and landfills. The plan incorporates waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits and industrial redesign. The report also points out that zero waste is a “revolution” between waste and people. “It is a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard the health, and improve the lives of everyone who produces, handles, works with, or is affected by waste – in other words all of us.”

Nine success stories from across the globe are profiled in the report. Each of the communities profiled used different zero waste practices that were unique to its culture, economy and political realities, yet each led successfully to the same goal. Each shared several key ingredients – intensive prevention and source separation policies and flexible and decentralized, low-tech waste treatment systems. Each was more cost-effective and generated more employment than systems built around big incinerators and landfills.

The introduction to the report describes a common philosophy behind a comprehensive zero waste plan driven by four core strategies: 1) Setting a new direction away from waste disposal; 2) Supporting comprehensive reuse, recycling and organics treatment programs; 3) Engaging Communities; and 4) Designing for the future.

The new direction moves society away from waste disposal by setting goals and target dates to reduce waste going to landfills, abolishing waste incineration, establishing or raising landfill fees, shifting subsidies away from waste disposal and into discard recovery, and banning disposable products, among other interventions.

Zero waste systems separate waste at its source to ensure high recovery quality and efficiency.  Separate organics collection is critical to ensure a stream of clean, high quality material which in turn enables the creation of useful products (compost and biogas) from the largest fraction of municipal waste. It also improves the recycling rates because materials remain free of contamination.

A critical element of zero waste is involving the local community in determining the direction of the waste management program. The public needs to be involved in the very design of the plan for it to succeed. Residents must actively participate by consuming sustainably, minimizing waste, separating discards, and composting at home.

Once zero waste practices are in place, it becomes easier to identify materials or products that cannot be reused, composted or recycled. This creates opportunities to address industrial design mistakes or inefficiencies so that companies will produce cleaner and more sustainable products. If it cannot be reused, composted or recycled, it should not be produced in the first place.

Zero waste strategies can help societies produce and consume goods while respecting ecological limits and the rights of communities to self determination. It can also help ensure that all discarded materials are safely and sustainably returned to nature or manufacturing.

For a copy of the report, see <www.no-burn.org/ZWcasestudies>.

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