As we grow increasingly concerned about the health of our planet, a new term, zero waste, is being used more and more frequently in discussions on environmental and sustainability policies. But what does the term really mean? Why is it important? And what else do you need to know about it? Read on for some answers to these and other commonly asked questions about zero waste.
What is zero waste?
Although the term “zero waste” might seem to describe a fairly clear and unambiguous concept, the definition of zero waste is actually hotly debated in environmental circles. In its broadest definition, as used by the Zero Waste International Alliance and similar groups, the term zero waste is used in a holistic way to illustrate the expansive ethical and philosophical goal of reshaping the way in which resources and waste flow through human society.
Under this definition, zero waste goes beyond just recycling and keeping waste out of landfills, and instead is applied to the whole production and consumption cycle. Ideally, zero waste means that products and processes are designed and managed in a way that systemically avoids or eliminates waste volume and toxicity, thus creating an alternative system that cycles all materials back for productive reuse and generates no waste. Essentially, this philosophy of zero waste questions virtually everything about the way we currently use our resources, from raw material extraction to production practices to how consumers choose and dispose of products.
However, most companies, municipalities, and media sources tend to use a more limited definition of zero waste. Under this definition, zero waste is used interchangeably with “zero waste to landfill,” and the scope of the term narrows to focus on what happens to waste materials after they are discarded. Zero waste to landfill emphasizes recycling, reusing, and composting materials where possible, but it can also allow for other disposal strategies, like incineration of waste or sending waste to waste-to-energy facilities instead of to landfills. To further complicate things, some definitions of zero waste to landfill mean that no waste whatsoever is landfilled, while under other definitions, a small percentage of waste can be landfilled while still allowing the company, municipality, or other entity to be considered a zero-waste-to-landfill entity.
Why is the concept of zero waste important?
In the face of limited natural resources and a growing population, our current consumption and disposal practices won’t be sustainable for very long. And while consumers can help to make a difference by pursuing zero-waste activities like participating in curbside recycling programs, reusing materials, and composting food scraps and organics, a bigger change is needed to address the fact that (according to the World Resources Institute), for every can of garbage that consumers put out at the curb, extraction and manufacturing industries produced 87 cans worth of waste before consumers even saw any products on store shelves.
Does it really make a difference to use recycled vs. new materials in manufacturing?
Yes. In addition to saving on resources, using recycled materials in manufacturing saves significant amounts of water and energy. It also releases fewer pollutants into our air and water. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, recycling helps reduce the rate of air pollutants in 10 major categories. It also lowers the rate of water pollutants in eight categories.
Isn’t recycling more expensive than landfills or incineration facilities?
As is the case for wasting, there are also economies of scale for recycling. Today, many cities and municipalities have well-run recycling programs that can actually earn money in addition to costing less than traditional waste-management programs.
Is achieving zero waste even possible?
While no system is 100% efficient, the technology already exists to enable us to achieve a 90% diversion rate (the rate at which waste is diverted from landfills to other destinations, like recycling facilities) in businesses and communities. To get closer to 100%, however, further major changes will be needed, including developing more public policies around zero-waste strategies and creating more replacement facilities for incinerators and landfills.
How can companies work to implement zero-waste practices?
One of the most important things a company (or a household) can do to start putting zero-waste measures in place is to measure its existing waste footprint. Assessing the volume of waste currently going to landfills, the volume being recycled or composted, and the volume of any hazardous waste is an essential step in determining what waste-management areas could use more attention.