Zero Waste: Sustain, Redesign, and Regenerate Waste Management Practices
In a society of consumerism, many are numb to the patterns of take, make, and waste. Consumers are expected to follow the latest trends and purchase the best new thing. Millions of dollars are poured into advertising and millions more are spent on resource extraction, material production, and transportation. And then, we waste it back into the earth. Take, make, waste; however, this pattern is beginning to change.
What Is Zero Waste?
‘Zero Waste’ is a re-envisioning of how society relates to the production, consumption, and disposal of products and materials we use every day – the goal: no trash will be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero waste is defined as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
Adopting zero waste goals is a step toward ending the generation of toxic, unnecessary, and wasteful products through systemic redesign; by investing in new infrastructure and waste management processes, our society can channel remaining discards into reuse or recycling for the creation of new products. As defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance, the zero-waste movement is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused:
Rethink/Redesign products and materials to create less waste
Reduce consumption of new products and materials
Reuse products and materials before disposing of them
Recycle/Compost products and materials and avoid landfilling
Recover materials from products that cannot be recycled
Manage residuals using the best possible approach from above
Although we have the technology and resources available to adopt zero-waste lifestyles, this shift requires more than a set of processes; it is a lifestyle change, a concept combined with practice; it is a shift in our approach to purchasing, using, and repurposing.
In order to activate zero-waste initiatives, coordination is required between producers and consumers, governments and citizens. As individuals, the best way to lead a zero-waste lifestyle is by changing consumption patterns. Businesses create zero waste initiatives, such as eliminating single-use products, purchasing more items second-hand or items with durability, giving back to the local community, and adopting smarter waste management processes such as recycling and composting. Recycling and composting are two processes that help in reducing the amount of valuable material that enters the landfill. Recycling products helps to minimize landfill waste and can also help create products that are reusable or can be recycled back to nature or the market. Zero waste involves adopting these practices, but also, shifting perspective on what it means to have a positive impact as an individual, business, or organization.
Committing to Zero Waste
Businesses want to achieve zero waste because it is good for their people, the planet, and their bottom line. Zero waste is important for big facilities; the bigger the operation or organization, the greater the opportunity for impact. Consumers are beginning to demand more corporate social responsibility from the brands they love; companies like Google, Patagonia, and Mars, Inc. have all made a zero waste pledge, and more continue to join the movement. While it is true that the larger the organization, the bigger the splash, we as individual consumers have a huge influence on the shift to a zero-waste society.
Environmental policy dictates legal obligations for adopting zero waste, but businesses do not have to wait for policies to make the shift; the evolution towards zero waste and a circular economy must start with the people. The impact of altruistic commitments to improving the environmental impact of businesses has a profound ripple effect. Once people are committed, the next step is planning: where can a company identify environmental impacts based on the products and services they provide or use and the current procedures for minimizing impact. As a company develops its plans for improvement, environmental laws and regulations help with the shift towards zero waste.
Societal Implications Of Zero Waste
The Zero Waste movement is predicated on the idea that it is possible to have a society that does not produce any waste because everything is recyclable and everything can be used again. Is that a reasonable assumption? Yes – if nature can do it, so can we.
As we create our new, no-waste society, we will inevitably create new jobs. Zero waste creates ten times more jobs per ton than standard landfill practices by hiring employees for recycling processes and recycling-based manufacturing. Instead of burying resources in a landfill, zero waste strengthens the local economy by keeping dollars and materials circulating through the region. Zero waste fits into a circular economy model as a key process that “preserves and enhances natural capital, optimizes resource yields, and minimizes system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows ” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
Adopting zero waste requires a holistic approach. We must rethink and redesign. We must reduce, reuse, and recycle or compost whatever we can. We must invest resources into material recovery and residual management. Zero waste implies a circular economy, which is “restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
As we shift the pattern of take, make, and waste, to more sustainable practice, we rediscover the true value of our planetary resources; we respond to the limitations placed on us and the living things that share our planet and we embrace a circular economy. As we look towards nature and other forms of intelligent design, our society will sustainably evolve towards a culture of regeneration, a culture of zero waste.