What is Zero waste?

Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. No trash is sent to landfills or incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature. The definition adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is:

Zero Waste is 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.

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.

Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health

Zero Waste refers to waste management and planning approaches which emphasize waste prevention as opposed to end-of-pipe waste management. It is a whole systems approach that aims for a massive change in the way materials flow through society, resulting in no waste. Zero waste encompasses more than eliminating waste through recycling and reuse, it focuses on restructuring production and distribution systems to reduce waste. Zero waste is more of a goal or ideal rather than a hard target. Zero Waste provides guiding principles for continually working towards eliminating wastes.

Advocates expect that government regulation is needed to influence industrial choices over product and packaging design, manufacturing processes, and material selection.

Advocates say eliminating waste eliminates pollution, and can also reduce costs due to reduced need for raw materials.

Cradle-to-cradle / cradle-to-grave

Cradle-to-grave is a term used to describe a linear model for materials that begins with resource extraction, moves to product manufacturing, and, ends with a ‘grave’, where the product is disposed of in a landfill. Cradle-to-grave is in direct contrast to cradle-to-cradle. Cradle-to-cradle is a term used in life-cycle analysis to describe a material or product that is recycled into a new product at the end of its life, so that ultimately there is no waste.

Cradle-to-cradle focuses on designing industrial systems so that materials flow in closed loop cycles which mean that waste is minimized, and waste products can be recycled and reused. Cradle-to-cradle simply goes beyond dealing with issues of waste after it has been created, by addressing problems at the source and by re-defining problems by focusing on design. The cradle-to-cradle model is sustainable and considerate of life and future generations.

The cradle-to-cradle framework has evolved steadily from theory to practice. In the industrial sector, it is creating a new notion of materials and material flows. Just as in the natural world, in which one organism’s ‘waste’, cycles through an ecosystem to provide nourishment for other living things, cradle-to-cradle materials circulate in closed-loop cycles, providing nutrients for nature or industry.

An example of a closed loop, cradle-to-cradle product design is DesignTex Fabric. It has designed an upholstery fabric, Climatex Lifecycle, which is a blend of pesticide- and residue-free wool and organically grown ramie, dyed and processed entirely with nontoxic chemicals. All of its product and process inputs were defined and selected for their human and ecological safety within the biological metabolism. This allows the fabric trimmings to be made into felt and used by garden clubs as mulch for growing fruits and vegetables, returning the textile’s biological nutrients to the soil.


There is a growing global population that is faced with limited resources from the environment. To relieve the pressures placed on the finite resources available it has become more important to prevent waste. To achieve zero waste, waste management has to move from a linear system to being more cyclical so that materials, products and substances are used as efficiently as possible. Materials must be chosen so that it may either return safely to a cycle within the environment or remain viable in the industrial cycle.

Zero waste promotes not only reuse and recycling, but, more importantly, it promotes prevention and product designs that consider the entire product life cycle. Zero waste designs strive for reduced materials use, use of recycled materials, use of more benign materials, longer product lives, reparability, and ease of disassembly at end of life. Zero waste strongly supports sustainability by protecting the environment, reducing costs and producing additional jobs in the management and handling of wastes back into the industrial cycle. A Zero waste strategy may be applied to businesses, communities, industrial sectors, schools and homes.

Benefits proposed by advocates include:

  • Saving money. Since waste is a sign of inefficiency, the reduction of waste can reduce costs.
  • Faster Progress. A zero waste strategy improves upon production processes and improving environmental prevention strategies which can lead to take larger, more innovative steps.
  • Supports sustainability. A zero waste strategy supports all three of the generally accepted goals of sustainability – economic well-being, environmental protection, and social well-being.
  • Improved material flows. A zero waste strategy would use far fewer new raw materials and send no waste materials to landfills. Any material waste would either return as reusable or recycled materials or would be suitable for use as compost.


1970s: Zero Waste Systems Inc

The term zero waste was first used publicly in the name of a company, Zero Waste Systems Inc. (ZWS), which was founded by PhD chemist Paul Palmer in the mid-1970s in Oakland, California. The mission of ZWS was to find new homes for most of the chemicals being excessed by the nascent electronics industry. They soon expanded their services in many other directions. For example, they accepted free of charge, large quantities of new and usable laboratory chemicals which they resold to experimenters, scientists, companies and tinkerers of every description during the 1970s. ZWS arguably had the largest inventory of laboratory chemicals in all of California, which were sold for half price. They also collected all of the solvent produced by the electronics industry called developer/rinse (a mixture of xylene and butyl acetate). This was put into small cans and sold as a lacquer thinner. ZWS collected all the “reflow oil” created by the printed circuit industry, which was filtered and resold into the “downhole” (oil well) industry. ZWS pioneered many other projects.

Because they were the only ones in the world in this business, they achieved an international reputation. Many magazine articles were written about them and several television shows featured them. The California Integrated Waste Management Board produced a slide show featuring ZWS’s business and the EPA published a number of studies of their business, calling them an “active waste exchange”.

The heir to the ZWS mantle is the Zero Waste Institute (ZWI), also founded by Paul Palmer, which can be found on http://www.zerowasteinstitute.org. Building on the lessons learned from ZWS, the ZWI considers recycling to be no more than an appendage to garbage creation and the garbage industry. ZWI likewise rejects all attempts to reuse garbage or any kind of waste product. Instead, ZWI calls for the redesign of all of the products of industry and commerce, and the processes that produce, sell and make use of them, so that discard never takes place and there is no waste generated needing to be reused or recycled. Discard is seen as the critical step, a commercial and psychological transfer of responsibility which breaks the chain of custody of a product, removes its owner and subjects it to the degradation of garbage management.

The website offers numerous specific examples of ways in which products can be designed so that discard is unnecessary since the lifetime of the product is extended to at least a threshold value of approximately a human lifetime of 100 years. A fully worked out set of principles and analysis is presented, revolving, among other changes, around standardization, modularization and robust design. A theory of design efficiency leading to design effectiveness is presented, which means that once a product is designed to be used in perpetuity, it can be fitted out with robust features, strong materials and special conveniences that could not be afforded in a product designed to be discarded after a single use. That theory is applied to packages as an example.

The ZWI rejects all association with the world of recycling, pointing out that there is no theory of recycling in existence; only a trusting hope that it can be useful.


The movement gained publicity and reached a peak in 1998–2002, and since then has been moving from “theory into action” by focusing on how a “zero waste community” is structured and behaves. The website of the Zero Waste International Alliance has a listing of communities across the globe that have created public policy to promote zero-waste practices. See also the Eco-Cycle website for examples of how this large nonprofit is leading Boulder County, Colorado on a Zero-Waste path and watch a 6-minute video about the zero-waste big picture. Finally, there is a USA zero-waste organization named the GrassRoots Recycling Network that puts on workshops and conferences about zero-waste activities.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board established a zero waste goal in 2001, The City and County of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment established a goal of zero waste in 2002, which led to the City’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in 2009. With its ambitious goal of zero waste and policies, San Francisco reached a record-breaking 80% diversion rate in 2010, the highest diversion rate in any North American city. San Francisco received a perfect score in the waste category in the Siemens US and Canada Green City Index, which named San Francisco the greenest city in North America.

Present day

The tension between zero waste, viewed as post-discard total recycling of materials only, and zero waste as the reuse of all high level function remains a serious one today. It is probably the defining difference between established recyclers and emerging zero-wasters. A signature example is the difference between smashing a glass bottle (recovering cheap glass) and refilling the bottle (recovering the entire function of the container).

The tension between the literal application of natural processes and the creation of industry-specific more efficient reuse modalities is another tension. Many observers look to nature as an ultimate model for production and innovative materials. Others point out that industrial products are inherently non-natural (such as chemicals and plastics that are mono-molecular) and benefit greatly from industrial methods of reuse, while natural methods requiring degradation and reconstitution are wasteful in that context.

Biodegradable plastic is the most prominent example. One side argues that biodegradation of plastic is wasteful because plastic is expensive and environmentally damaging to make. Whether made of starch or petroleum, the manufacturing process expends all the same materials and energy costs. Factories are built, raw materials are procured, investments are made, machinery is built and used, humans labor and make use of all normal human inputs for education, housing, food etc. Even if the plastic is biodegraded after a single use, all of those costs are lost so it is much more important to design plastic parts for multiple reuse or perpetual lives. The other side argues that keeping plastic out of a dump or the sea is the sole benefit of interest.

Companies moving towards “zero landfill” plants include Subaru, Xerox and Anheuser-Busch.

The movement continues to grow among the youth around the world under the organization Zero Waste Youth, which originated in Brazil and has spread to Argentina, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the United States, and Russia. The organization multiplies with local volunteer ambassadors who lead zero waste gatherings and events to spread the zero waste message.

Packaging example

Milk can be shipped in many forms. One of the traditional forms was reusable returnable glass milk bottles, often home delivered by a milkman. While some of this continues, other options have recently been more common: one-way gable-top paperboard cartons, one-way aseptic cartons, one-way recyclable glass bottles, one-way milk bags, and others. Each system claims some advantages and also has possible disadvantages. From the zero waste standpoint, the reuse of bottles is beneficial because the material usage per trip can be less than other systems. The primary input (or resource) is silica-sand, which is formed into glass and then into a bottle. The bottle is filled with milk and distributed to the consumer. A reverse logistics system returns the bottles for cleaning, inspection, sanitization, and reuse. Eventually the heavy duty bottle would not be suited for further use and would be recycled. Waste and landfill usage would be minimized. The material waste is primarily the wash water, detergent, transportation, heat, bottle caps, etc. While true zero waste is never achieved, a life cycle assessment can be used to calculate the waste at each phase of each cycle.

Recycling and rotting (composting)

It is important to distinguish recycling from Zero Waste.

Some claim that the key component to zero waste is recycling while others reject that notion in favor of reusing high function. The common understanding of recycling is simply that of placing bottles and cans in a recycle bin. The modern version of recycling is more complicated and involves many more elements of financing and government support. For example, a 2007 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the US recycles at a national rate of 33.4% and includes in this figure composted materials. In addition many worldwide commodity industries have been created to handle the materials that are recycled. At the same time, claims of recycling rates have sometimes been exaggerated, for example by the inclusion of soil and organic matter used to cover garbage dumps daily, in the “recycled” column. In states with recycling incentives, there is constant local pressure to pump up the recycling rate figures.

The movement toward recycling has separated itself from the concept of zero waste. One example of this is the computer industry where worldwide millions of PC’s are disposed of as electronic waste each year (160 million in 2007). Those computers that enter the recycling stream are broken down into a small amount of raw materials while most merely enter dumps through export to third world countries. Companies are then able to purchase some raw materials, notably steel, copper and glass, reducing the use of new materials. On the other hand, there is an industry, more aligned with the Zero Waste principle of design for long term reuse, that actually repairs computers. It is called the Computer Refurbishing industry and it predates the current campaign to just collect and ship electronics. They have organizations and conferences and have for many years donated computers to schools, clinics and non-profits. Zero Waste planning demands that components be redesigned for effective reuse over long lives leading to even more refurbishing and repair.

There is one seminal example that brings out the difference between Zero Waste and recycling in stark relief. That example, quoted in Getting To Zero Waste, is the software business. Zero Waste is sensitive to the waste of intellectual effort that would be caused by the need to recreate certain basic inventions of software (called objects in software design) as opposed to copying them over and over whenever needed. The waste would occur as the software developers consume resources while solving problems already solved earlier. The application of Zero Waste analysis is straightforward as it recommends conserving human effort. On the other hand, the usual approach of recycling would be to look for some materials that could be found to reuse. The materials on which software is saved (such as paper or diskettes)is of little significance compared to the saving of human effort and if software is saved electronically, there is no media at all. Thus Zero Waste correctly identifies a wasteful behavior to avoid while recycling has no application.

The recycling movement has been embraced by the garbage industry because it serves so well as greenwashing i.e. a way to show that design for garbage creation is acceptable because materials will be kept out of a dump by recycling them. Zero Waste, on the other hand, offers the garbage industry no such screen against public condemnation of waste, and therefore actually threatens the continued need for garbage disposal. For example, in Alameda County, California, garbage dumping is charged a surcharge of $8/ton (as of 2009) which goes entirely for a recycling subsidy but none of which goes for any kind of Zero Waste style designing. Zero Waste has received no support from the garbage industry or politicians under their control except in those cases where it can be claimed to consist solely of more recycling.

Reduce, refuse and reuse

Zero waste is poorly supported by the enactment of government laws to enforce the waste hierarchy of refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot (compost). In practice, these laws invariably emphasize destruction and recycling, while the reuse component is marginalized.

A special feature of Zero Waste as a design principle is that it can be applied to any product or process, in any situation or at any level. Thus it applies equally to toxic chemicals as to benign plant matter. It applies to the waste of atmospheric purity by coal burning or the waste of radioactive resources by attempting to designate the excesses of nuclear power plants as “nuclear waste”. All processes can be designed to minimize the need for discard, both in their own operations and in the usage or consumption patterns which the design of their products leads to. Recycling, on the other hand, deals only with simple materials.

Zero Waste can even be applied to the waste of human potential by enforced poverty and the denial of educational opportunity. It encompasses redesign for reduced energy wasting in industry or transportation and the wasting of the earth’s rainforests. It is a general principle of designing for the efficient use of all resources, however defined.

The recycling movement may be slowly branching out from its solid waste management base to include issues that are similar to the community sustainability movement.

Zero waste on the other hand, is not based in waste management limitations to begin with but requires that we maximize our existing reuse efforts while creating and applying new methods that minimize and eliminate destructive methods like incineration and recycling. Zero Waste strives to ensure that products are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and generally reused.. (“What is Zero Waste?”, part 2).

Online web services, like Free Cycle or the reGives Network have risen in popularity over the last decade where locals can give items that they no longer need to others locally in an effort to keep items out of landfills and work toward a zero waste lifestyle.

Significance of dump capacity

Many dumps are currently exceeding carrying capacity. This is often, mistakenly used as a justification for moving to Zero Waste. Others counter by pointing out that there are huge tracts of land available throughout the USA and other countries which could be used for dumps. The underlying need to move to a society designed along Zero Waste principles arises from the huge waste of resources that is inherent in poorly made, short-lived articles and production processes. The locus of the most egregious wasting takes place as articles are built and processes are run wastefully. The actual placing of a now useless item in a dump is barely the icing on the cake, in terms of the waste it represents. Poorly conceived proposals, that appear with a dismaying regularity on the Internet, to blithely destroy all garbage as a way to solve the garbage problem, make use of the common delusion that it is the garbage itself which is the problem. These proposals typically claim to convert all or a large portion of existing garbage into oil and sometimes claim to produce so much oil that the world will henceforth have abundant liquid fuels. One such plan, called Anything Into Oil was promoted by Discover Magazine and Fortune Magazine in 2004, even though it absurdly claimed to be able to convert a refrigerator into “light Texas crude” by the application of high pressure steam. Zero Waste analysis, which is long on scientific results and short on spectacular claims, receives no such promotion by the media.

Corporate initiatives

An example of a company that has demonstrated a change in landfill waste policy is General Motors (GM). GM has confirmed their plans to make approximately half of its 181 plants worldwide “landfill-free” by the end of 2010. Companies like Subaru, Toyota, and Xerox are also producing landfill-free plants. GM is supposed to have about eighty producing plants twenty months. Furthermore, The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with GM and other companies for decades to minimize the waste through its WasteWise program. The goal for General Motors is finding ways to recycle or reuse more than 90% of materials by: selling scrap materials, adopting reusable parts boxes to replace cardboard, and even recycling used work gloves. The remainder of the scraps might be incinerated to create energy for the plants. Besides being nature friendly, it also saves money by cutting out waste and producing a more efficient production. All these organizations push forth to make our world clean and producing zero waste.

Re-use or rot of waste

The waste sent to landfills may be harvested as useful materials, such as in the production of solar energy or natural fertilizer /de-composted manure for crops.

It may also be reused and recycled for something that we can actually use. “The success of General Motors in creating zero-landfill facilities shows that zero-waste goals can be a powerful impetus for manufacturers to reduce their waste and carbon footprint,” says Latisha Petteway, a spokesperson for the EPA.

Construction and deconstruction

Zero Waste is a goal, a process, a way of thinking that profoundly changes our approach to resources and production. Zero Waste is not about recycling and diversion from landfills but about restructuring production and distribution systems to prevent waste from being manufactured in the first place. The materials that are still required in these re-designed, resource-efficient systems will be reused many times as the products that incorporate them are reused. Deconstruction can be described as construction in reverse. It involves carefully taking apart a building to maximize the reuse of materials, thereby reducing waste and conserving resources. Deconstruction can capture materials and some components from the millions of buildings that are existing and that were poorly designed for high level reuse but it is not a favored approach from a Zero Waste point of view. Zero Waste favors the design of buildings as assemblages of high level components, not their creation from rough materials such as lumber, cement or plaster. The details are not worked out yet but to the extent that entire rooms, entire walls, roofs or floors or entire utility systems can be pre-built and installed as completed components, that will be the goal of Zero Waste design. Until buildings are built as components capable of later dismantling, deconstruction is a stop-gap process that the United States can use to minimize the waste of building materials. For now, the largest parts that we are able to save tend to be architectural elements, windows, doors, and metals, many of which are being saved and resold by reuse yards such as Urban Ore in Berkeley, California. The main parts that still need to be crushed are wood flooring, brick walls, and structural timbers. The demolition of traditional buildings has been long done by wrecking ball or bulldozer. Social and political artifacts, such as demolition contractor licenses and required permits that can only be satisfied by destruction and discard (with partial recycling of rubble and steel), render the destruction and disposal costs cheaper than deconstruction. Approximately seventy pounds of the waste is generated for about every square foot of the residential building demolition. It is arguable that this is artificial economics, based on the cultural preference for wastefulness and that Zero Waste designs of dismantlable components will ultimately be the cheapest as well as the most conservative way to reuse buildings. Further discussions of this topic may be found on the ZWI website.

Roper’s comments in the paragraph above are either misquoted or wrong concerning wood flooring, structural wood and bricks needing to be crushed. Brick, wood and stone are among the oldest truly recyclable materials used in construction. A historic review of old buildings, barns and bridges clearly shows that brick, stones and timber are reused from older buildings. Some of the oldest structures on the planet are built with materials that were recycled from previous structures. One recent example is the Mayflower Barn at Jordans just north of High Wycombe, UK. The barn is clearly built of reused timbers, possibly sourced from the salvage of the Mayflower ship. It is simply a fact of life that historically materials that could be reused were reused.

In more recent construction, structural timber components, including large timbers, glued laminated beams, floor joists, studs and flooring are some of the most valuable structural components salvaged when a structure is demolished if there is an interest in salvaging. If you need proof, go down to any local construction salvage yard and look at the value of trusses, wood beams, floor joists, studs and flooring. Today they have value when someone saves them.

One of the barriers of reusing structural materials is the bias of building code officials and building departments that discriminate against reusing materials. Codes and building departments require compliance to codes, including the source of materials. Your average contractor cannot just use 100-year-old 2×8 (50×200) salvaged floor joists because the building department requires a graded joist. The contractor then has to find an engineer or wood technologist to verify the material suitability for its use. While the codes technically allow this under alternative method, modern attention to cost usually prevents that option.

Market-based campaigns

Market-based, legislation-mediated campaigns like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and the Precautionary Principle are among numerous campaigns that have a Zero Waste slogan hung on them by means of claims they will ineluctably lead to policies of Zero Waste. At the moment, there is no evidence that EPR will increase reuse, rather than merely moving discard and disposal into private-sector dumping contracts. The Precautionary Principle is put forward to shift liability for proving new chemicals are safe from the public (acting as guinea pig) to the company introducing them. As such, its relation to Zero Waste is dubious. Likewise, many organizations, cities and counties have embraced a Zero Waste slogan while pressing for none of the key Zero Waste changes. In fact, it is common for many such to simply state that recycling is their entire goal. Many commercial or industrial companies claim to embrace Zero Waste but usually mean no more than a major materials recycling effort, having no bearing on product redesign. Examples include Staples, Home Depot, Toyota, General Motors and computer take-back campaigns. Earlier social justice campaigns have successfully pressured McDonald’s to change their meat purchasing practices and Nike to change its labor practices in Southeast Asia. Those were both based on the idea that organized consumers can be active participants in the economy and not just passive subjects. However, the announced and enforced goal of the public campaign is critical. A goal to reduce waste generation or dumping through greater recycling will not achieve a goal of product redesign and so cannot reasonably be called a Zero Waste campaign.

How to achieve

National and provincial governments often set targets and may provide some funding, but on a practical level, waste management programs (e.g. pickup, dropoff, or containers for recycling and composting) are usually implemented by local governments, possibly with regionally shared facilities.

Reaching the goal of zero waste requires the products of manufacturers and industrial designers to be easily disassembled for recycling and incorporated back into nature or the industrial system; durability and repairability also reduce unnecessary churn in the product lifecycle. Minimizes packaging also solves many problems early in the supply chain. If not mandated by government, choices by retailers and consumers in favor of zero-waste-friendly products can influence production. To prevent material from becoming waste, consumers, businesses, and non-profits must be educated in how to reduce waste and recycle successfully.

Zero Waste Hierarchy

The “Zero Waste Hierarchy” describes a progression of policies and strategies to support the Zero Waste system, from highest and best to lowest use of materials. It is designed to be applicable to all audiences, from policy-makers to industry and the individual. It aims to provide more depth to the internationally recognized 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle); to encourage policy, activity and investment at the top of the hierarchy; and to provide a guide for those who wish to develop systems or products that move us closer to Zero Waste. It enhances the Zero Waste definition by providing guidance for planning and a way to evaluate proposed solutions.All over the world, in some form or another, a pollution prevention hierarchy is incorporated into recycling regulations, solid waste management plans, and resource conservation programs. In Canada, a pollution prevention hierarchy otherwise referred to as the Environmental Protection Hierarchy was adopted. This Hierarchy has been incorporated into all recycling regulations within Canada and is embedded within all resource conservation methods which all government mandated waste prevention programs follow. While the intention to incorporate the 4th R (recovery)prior to disposal was good, many organizations focused on this 4th R instead of the top of the hierarchy resulting in costly systems designed to destroy materials instead of systems designed to reduce environmental impact and waste. Because of this, along with other resource destruction systems that have been emerging over the past few decades, Zero Waste Canada along with the Zero Waste International Alliance have adopted the only internationally peer reviewed Zero Waste Hierarchy that focuses on the first 3Rs; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle including Compost

Source: Wikipedia

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