Zero Waste: Can it be Done?
October 8, 2007
“Zero waste means different things to different people and different communities. What everyone agrees on, however, is that trash will be around for a long time,” said Shawn Worster of HDR Engineering. According to Worster, waste is defined as recyclable paper and cardboard (18 percent of materials), problem materials (23 percent), compostable materials (34 percent), and recyclable materials (25 percent).
Some environmental advocates define zero waste as the concept that the word “waste” should be eliminated. While communities may define their zero waste strategy differently, most communities recognize the following:
- “Waste” is not inevitable
- Discarded materials are potentially valuable
- Zero waste goes beyond “end of pipe” strategies
- Maximizes recycling and composting
- Reduces consumption
- Designs waste out of the system
Worster discussed the factors that are driving the conversations of zero waste, including climate change, sustainability, and moving beyond a 70 percent diversion rate. Since recycling is carbon negative, many communities are focusing on this area of the zero waste conversation. Waste prevention, recycling and composting save energy, divert materials to landfills and reduce landfill gas emissions. The pillars of a zero waste strategy must include looking both up and down the production chain. The “waste berg,” as Worster called it, accounts for 71 tons of upstream waste per one ton of municipal solid waste. “Before any product gets to a consumer, a tremendous amount of waste is generated from the production process,” Worster continued.
Addressing the “down stream” component is also critical. This includes ensuring the highest and best use of products and packaging at the end of their useful lives, reusing products and packaging, retaining their original form and function recycling or composing materials that are not reduced or reused, recovering useful energy and managing residuals.
The final component is creating and attracting “green collar jobs, and green businesses. For example, 10,000 tons of solid waste supports one landfill job, four composting jobs, ten recycling jobs, or 75-250 re-use jobs.
Communities that choose to explore “zero waste” are moving from a waste management strategy to a resource management strategy, involving the entire community and managing the waste stream from top to bottom.