Reduce, reuse, recycle. This mantra has been publicized tirelessly in recent years, emblazoned on hemp tote bags, organic cotton t-shirts, and reusable water bottles. While it has been moderately successful in raising public awareness about the waste stream, this slogan mainly targets consumers, and most of those consumers are just recycling. In reality, the man-made waste stream is a much larger issue. Consider the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Bigger than the Great Wall of China, the Fresh Kills Landfill was the largest man-made object on Earth and could be seen from space with the naked eye until reclamation began in 2009. Humans are the only existing species that produce non-biodegradable waste. More importantly, this waste is not only created at the consumer, end-of-product-life level. Raw material extraction, product and packaging design, manufacturing practices, sales and distribution, and government policy are all contributing factors.
This is where the concept of zero waste comes in. Zero waste practices seek to tackle our “throw away” attitude by emphasizing resource conservation, reduction in pollution, increased economic opportunity, and quality over quantity. Mimicking nature, zero waste initiatives promote a cyclical manner of resource use over a linear approach. Zero waste perspectives perceive waste as a resource going in the wrong direction. Many discarded materials or resources often viewed as “waste” can be used to make new products, effectively cutting infrastructure costs, creating new jobs and revenue opportunities, and encouraging innovation. Rather than targeting only consumers, zero waste efforts employ system wide principles, optimizing resource use and keeping producers, consumers, and policy makers accountable. The overall goal? To eliminate waste as much as possible. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of zero waste fundamentals and their existing counterparts:
- Raw Material Supply: emphasize recycled material use, sustainable harvesting and non-toxic materials over exhaustion of virgin resources and piecemeal toxic material management
- Product and Packaging Design: encourage waste minimization, durability, repairability, recyclability, and longer product lifespans over manufactured obsolescence in the interest of maximized sales
- Manufacturing: reform operations to abate emissions, minimize resource use and account for end-of-life product management instead of skirting compliance costs
- Sales and Distribution: instill an active sense of environmental responsibility in wholesalers and retailers and support regional distribution and sales rather than large-scale, mass distribution
- Government Policy: promote and incentivize conservation industries, maintain accountability at the producer stage, and institutionalize efficient strategies to control environmental, economic and social impacts in place of subsidizing uneconomical virgin extraction industries and managing waste at the expense of taxpayers
- Consumption: select products on basis of quality, price, and environmental impact and increase participation reuse/recycling programs instead of overconsumptive behaviors
Clearly, zero waste initiatives require a significant shift in societal awareness and dedication. Informing and educating the public is crucial to this process of surmounting existing barriers. In 2007, director Louis Fox, filmmaker Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios released a 20 minute documentary trying to do just that. Titled The Story of Stuff, the animated film takes a critical stance on excessive consumerism and the materials economy, explaining the impacts on environmental, economic and social health. Since its release, the documentary been translated into 15 languages and viewed in 228 different countries and territories.
Pick Up America is a more interactive, hands-on approach to raising awareness about reducing waste. In 2010, co-founders and University of Maryland alumni Davey Rogner and Jeff Chen and the rest of the PUA crew embarked on nation’s first coast-to-coast roadside litter pick up. From its starting point in Assateague Island, Maryland, PUA will span thirteen states in its journey to the San Francisco Bay area, picking up trash, coordinating volunteers, and educating communities about zero waste practices along the way. So far, the PUA team has collected 109,796 pounds of litter over 1,000 miles.
And what about implementation? Since the birth of the zero waste concept, numerous district councils and city divisions have adopted waste reduction and recycling strategies to enable a transition to a waste-free future. In 1998, the Opotiki District Council in New Zealand became the first local authority to endorse zero waste practices. Canada has also been a leader in blazing the zero waste trail, developing more sustainable methods of waste management and diversion in multiple municipalities spanning the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia.
To find out more about what “zero waste” really means, check out the following:
- Discarding the Idea of Waste: The Need for a Zero Waste Policy Now by Michael Jessen, founder of Zero Waste Solutions, Inc.
- Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee
- Zero Waste Alliance