Steps to Zero Waste Products
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July 23, 2020
What is zero waste exactly? And how does it make us reevaluate the way we view and use our natural resources? Here, we look at exactly what the zero-waste system entails and how it aims to reduce the environmental impact of our disposable culture and address climate change issues at the same time.
What is zero waste…really?
The definition of zero waste according to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is as follows:
“Zero waste: 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.”
At its core, zero waste takes aim at our “take, make, and waste” approach to production and consumption, encouraging a more circular approach to the way we use resources. On its most basic level, this means that the goal of zero waste is to push economies towards the target of sending no waste to landfill, incinerators, and the ocean.
However, while recycling and conscientious waste management remain core to achieving that goal, zero waste extends much further than simply dealing with “end-of-life” waste. In fact, it examines the entire lifecycle of a product or material, highlighting inefficiencies and unsustainable production and consumption practices. Zero waste refers not only to keeping waste out of landfill, but also pushing our economy to be less wasteful in production and consumption.
For those asking whether zero waste is realistic, the answer is clear. Zero waste is not merely an end goal, but a set of guiding principles that strive towards eliminating waste at any and all stages of the chain. From resource extraction through production to consumption and management of discarded materials, the aim is to close the loop, redefining the entire concept of waste and ensuring resources remain in use for as long as possible before being returned to the earth with little to no environmental impact.
What are the zero waste principles?
The zero waste principles include three underlying obligations that target different sections of society:
Each represents a specific stage of the waste stream. Producers are at the front end, and they must take responsibility for product design and manufacturing. The Community sits at the back end, taking responsibility for consumption and disposal. In between, political responsibility must bridge the gap between community and producer, promoting both environmental and human health while enforcing new laws designed to promote the zero waste principles.
The principles themselves are as follows, however, they are also constantly expanding to meet new challenges that arise as we continue to explore the realities of a zero waste economy.
Design closed-loop systems
Ensure processes (manufacturing, recycling, etc.) happen close to the source
Don’t export harmful waste
Engage the community and promote change
Keep products and materials in the loop as long as possible
Build systems that provide feedback for continuous improvement
Support local economies
Promote materials as resources
Minimize polluting discharges to land, water, and air
Consider the true costs of opportunities
Promote the Precautionary Principle
Promote the Polluter Pays Principle
Develop adaptable, flexible, and resilient systems
What are the zero waste hierarchy and cradle-to-cradle thinking?
An important distinction between zero waste and conventional waste management and recycling is the prevention of wasteful practices at the start of the chain. This is otherwise known as cradle-to-cradle thinking, which stands in direct opposition to cradle-to-grave thinking. Here’s what the terms mean:
Cradle-to-grave – A linear model that begins with resource extraction, moves through manufacturing, and sees products end up in landfill. Considered an “open-loop” system that is inherently wasteful.
Cradle-to-cradle – A circular model that minimizes waste and keeps resources in use for as long as possible. Considered a “closed-loop” that promotes sustainability and strives for zero waste through reduction, reuse, and recycling.
An example of cradle-to-cradle thinking is found within the sustainable natural cycles of organic farming and composting, and this efficient process serves as the perfect archetype for the broader concept. Food is grown using natural methods without harmful chemical pesticides or fertilizers and is distributed and consumed (ideally using carbon-neutral distribution channels and reusable/compostable packaging). Once consumed, any food waste is composted, closing the loop as the compost contributes to the growing of more food.
However, while this simple and elegant example of the cradle-to-cradle concept works well with organics, when it comes to more complex products there is a clear need to reevaluate our approach. Here, the zero waste hierarchy comes to light, essentially expanding the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) to encourage policy-making, activity, and investment in systems that promote the cradle-to-cradle concept.
Zero waste hierarchy principles:
Use reused, recycled, or sustainably gathered non-toxic materials. Incentivize cyclical materials and extended producer responsibility for the entire lifecycle of a product.
Sustainable purchasing that supports social and environmental concerns and local markets, or take back programs to avoid disposal of products. Minimize the quantity and toxicity of materials while planning for consumption habits to minimize waste.
Optimize the reuse of materials and products through repair, refurbishment, modular technologies, and repurposing in alternative ways.
Recycle / Compost
Support and expand existing systems that allow for high-quality recyclables and materials. Build local markets for collection and processing of recyclables. Promote decentralized composting at home.
Optimize material recovery and only use energy recovery systems that operate at biological temperatures and pressures.
Minimize polluting gasses and toxic residuals from materials. Encourage the preservation of resources and minimize destructive disposal methods.
Disincentivize and remove support for the incineration of waste and waste-to-energy systems. Remove all toxic residuals from consumer products and in building materials.
What Is the zero waste movement?
The zero waste movement is the collective pursuit of the zero waste principles, and as its popularity grows, individuals and communities around the world are helping push the agenda further. One of the most visible of many initiatives that are illuminating our consumption and waste generation habits is the ‘Mason Jar Challenge’ where participants reduce their waste down to a single mason jar over one year. However, the zero waste movement is gathering steam, and there are many more initiatives in the pipeline.
In fact, people taking responsibility for their own waste production is only the tip of the iceberg and by increasing awareness around the issue, both politicians and producers will be forced to take more responsibility. Zero-waste stores, zero-waste agriculture, zero-waste fashion, and even entire zero-waste lifestyles and jurisdictions are now entering the mainstream, with more people than ever striving to meet zero waste principles.
Today, the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) positions itself as the only peer-reviewed authority on the topic, and its guiding principles are among the most comprehensive. They ask the community:
To adopt the ZWIA definition of the concept
To establish benchmarks and a timeline for the zero waste agenda
To engage the whole community – local, national, and international
To demand the management and conservation of all resources and not just the management of waste
To implement levies and taxes on waste that is sent to landfill
To perform zero waste assessments
To build separation and research facilities for residuals
To develop rules, laws, and incentives to promote zero waste
To enforce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws
To remove government subsidies that allow and promote waste
To expand zero waste infrastructure
Why zero waste?
According to the EPA, only around 30% of the US waste stream is recycled and around 140 million tons of waste is sent to landfill each year. When it comes to single-use plastics only around 9% are recycled.
Landfills cannot continue to hold our waste, they are not only harmful to the environment, but they also release CO2, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other harmful gasses. Additionally, leachate from landfills enters our groundwater and pollutes farmland and drinking water.
At our current waste generation levels, the recycling industry cannot hope to keep up with demand, and while recycling is highly important to the zero waste movement, it must not be so heavily relied on. Additionally, the extra resources and emissions associated with the recycling industry can and should be designed out, using better resource management and by encouraging producer responsibility.
Finally, if we hope to address the destructive impact of climate change then zero waste and a more circular economy are truly our most sensible and sustainable options.
*Source: Zero Waste
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3. Training & Education
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January 13, 2021
Going zero waste is good, right? Seems simple enough. But, have you ever actually stopped to ask… why? What are the benefits of zero waste? What impact does it have on you, your health, your household, the economy, the planet? In truth, it’s not easy to tackle these questions, but by taking a look into the advantages of zero waste we can begin to piece together the bigger picture.
So, whether your business is just beginning its zero waste journey or you’ve been living a zero-waste lifestyle for a while, here, we dive deep into the benefits of zero waste to remind you why refusing that plastic bag, reusing your old jars and bottles, and repairing or recycling your broken electronics is important.
Zero Waste Advantages for You and Your Household
While the switch to zero waste can be hard, there can be many benefits for you on a personal level as well as for your household in general, such as:
Improved physical health
Fewer toxic chemicals in your home
Reduced unnecessary spending
Improved Physical Health
Packaged food does not necessarily mean unhealthy food, but unhealthy foods often mean lots of packaging. Think about when you walk through a grocery store — loose fruit, vegetables, and if you’re lucky, legumes — all healthy and all without packaging. Candy, cookies, and chips? Plastic, plastic, plastic.
Often the packaging is so thin that it can’t even be recycled. One of the zero waste health benefits is simply being forced to shop, cook, and eat healthier. What’s more, being made to slow down and think about what you’re buying at the grocery store creates a more mindful way of shopping, allowing you to make better decisions for the entire life cycle of the products you buy!
Mindfulness has been shown to have various positive effects such as stress reduction, increased working memory and focus, less emotional reactivity, and more. Extend this concept to mindful consumption beyond food and drinks, and people are obliged to assess the products they clean themselves and their homes with.
Fewer Toxic Chemicals
Zero waste cleaning and self-care products tend to have fewer potentially damaging chemicals (and fewer ingredients in general) meaning a happier, healthier, and more sustainable household. The same is often true for the packaging of these products, and waste reduction through the use of non-toxic materials in packaging (such as plastics and other petroleum-based materials) means fewer issues caused by microplastics in the local, national, and global environment.
Reduced Unnecessary Spending
Even if they don’t realize it, many people participate in emotional spending, which is when you buy something you don’t want or need as a result of negative (or sometimes positive) emotions such as being stressed. It is one of the reasons you might find yourself making impulse purchases—they make you feel good. Making a concerted effort to work towards zero waste means avoiding emotional spending and reducing the amount of money wasted on unnecessary (or even unwanted) goods.
It’s true that right now many zero waste products can be more expensive than their disposable counterparts, but as more people embrace the benefits of zero waste, it’s likely we will see prices come down. What’s more, higher costs are often due to higher quality, with zero-waste goods designed to last far longer than comparable products.
The ultimate goal of zero waste is to help people reuse, repair, and repurpose things that have come to the end of their life (or would have if you were still tossing them in the trash). By reusing rather than replacing you can save significant amounts of money, making it another zero-waste lifestyle benefit.
The Benefits of a Zero-Waste Community
Making the switch to zero waste in your home or business doesn’t just affect you, but can also have many positive benefits in your wider community, such as:
Getting food and goods to those who need them
Saving money that can be reinvested into your community
Improving social cohesion
Creating jobs and improving the local economy
Reducing localized pollution
Challenging Food Waste
When thinking about waste and how to avoid it, many people think about things like plastic packaging and paper bags. However, food actually makes up 22% of all municipal solid waste (MSW) in the United States and is the single largest component in US landfills.
Going zero waste means that this food (much of which is perfectly edible) gets diverted away from the landfill. Aside from the environmental benefits, redirecting what would have been food waste to community organizations, homes, and people who need it can have a significant social impact. What’s more, the money saved from wasted food can be funneled into positive projects for sustainability—and it’s a significant amount of money, with an estimated $161 billion of food trashed in the United States every year.
Getting Goods to Those that Need Them
Redistribution rather than disposal doesn’t need to end with food. Zero waste is about reuse and repurposing, which means that goods you don’t need can go to others in the community and vice versa. It’s not just giving away what you no longer need, but also sharing what everyone needs.
Community-based zero-waste strategies can involve initiatives to share or rent goods rather than each person going out and buying their own—and that means rental stores and other small businesses, along with more local jobs. Similarly, this circular economy can also give rise to the likes of repair shops and thrift stores, creating even more jobs and improving local economies.
What’s more, by promoting circular economies within communities, going zero waste promotes communities themselves by encouraging people to work together and share goods to reduce each of their individual impacts. The social benefits that this brings are priceless.
Less Waste, More Jobs
As well as jobs created locally in rental and repair, zero waste can also help boost the economy through the creation of green jobs in alternative waste management and recycling. It’s projected that reaching a 75% diversion rate of municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition debris (C&D) by 2030 could create 2.3 million jobs in the United States. Taking this into account, the benefits of zero waste in a city of the scale of New York, for example, are quite dramatic.
Reduced Localized Pollution
Going zero waste can help reduce localized pollution in neighborhoods, cities, and towns thanks to fewer deliveries and trips to the shop, as well as less trash being burned in incinerators and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. The same goes for landfills; less trash in the ground means more usable space and a reduced chance of toxins seeping into the local groundwater. Combined, this makes for happier, healthier communities with all of these factors also true on a global scale.
Global Zero Waste Advantages
Think global, act local, and you’ll start to see the benefits of zero waste on a worldwide scale, including:
A reduction of non-biodegradable waste such as plastic
A drop in the production of greenhouse gases
Fewer finite natural resources being extracted
Reducing Plastic Pollution
A lot of different waste goes to landfills, some of which breaks down and some which doesn’t. Most people are probably familiar with one of the biggest culprits of non-biodegradable trash: plastic.
Since 1950, about 6.3 billion tons of plastics have been produced globally, but only 9% have been recycled and 12% incinerated. That leaves a lot of plastic that has ended up in landfills or the ocean, where it can leech toxic chemicals and destroy biodiversity for thousands of years. One of the benefits of zero waste? No single-use plastics!
Greenhouse Gases from Organic Waste
However, even the stuff that does break down can cause serious issues, with a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material in landfills being landfill gas (LFG), which is about 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide’s planet-warming tendencies are well known to most people since it accounts for 81% of all greenhouse gases in the US, but methane is also a huge problem. In fact, it is “28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
While many factors contribute to CO2 emissions, ‘Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States’, making them (and the waste that fills them) a serious issue to tackle. Reducing our reliance on landfill, especially in the context of food waste, and increasing composting allows us to significantly reduce the impact of organic waste by reducing greenhouse gasses and creating fertilizers to rejuvenate our degrading soils.
Avoiding the Unnecessary Extraction of Raw Materials
Finally, by reducing the amount of unnecessary packaging by focusing on reusable products, and by repairing and repurposing what may have previously considered waste, you are also conserving natural resources. With this approach as a priority, we can enhance our zero waste goals further when we recycle, which while not being nearly as good as refusing new products and rescuing old ones, reduces the number of raw materials required for manufacturing and minimizes the harmful practices that are associated with mining or producing virgin stock.
The benefits of zero waste are clear, with positive impacts on a very personal level that ripple out to your household, community, and the world at large.
*Source: Zero Waste
Learn how to implement zero waste products here.
5. Collaborate & Exemplify
Collaborate with people in your community who use zero waste products and see how its done here.
How Communities Have Defined Zero Waste
Many communities across the country and around the world are working towards zero waste. An example of why one community chose to establish a zero waste goal and plan is explained in the Executive Summary of the City of Fort Collins Road to Zero Waste Plan (PDF) (43 pp, 862.19 KB).EXIT
Zero waste has been defined in various ways by different entities. The following examples share how some municipalities and other organizations have defined zero waste.
U.S. Conference of Mayors
WHEREAS, the concept of zero waste goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product's life cycle, to encompass the entire life cycle of a product, beginning with product design, and envisioning the use and management of materials in ways that preserve value, minimize environmental impacts, and conserve natural resources; and
WHEREAS, materials management through zero waste can begin to shift the fiscal burden of waste and empower industry to embrace resource responsibility by rewarding stewardship through purchasing and economic development incentives; and
WHEREAS, while industry and the federal government have variously defined and categorized zero waste strategies, it behooves the nation's cities, with primary responsibility for waste management, to devise a definition that encourages shared fiscal responsibility and legislative innovations,
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that The United States Conference of Mayors adopts a definition of Zero Waste, and set of Zero Waste principles, that recognizes a Hierarchy of Material Management as follows:
Extended Producer Responsibility and Product Redesign
Reduce Waste, Toxicity, Consumption, and Packaging
Repair, Reuse and Donate
Down Cycle and Beneficial Reuse
Waste-Based Energy as disposal
Landfill Waste as disposal
Zero Waste International Alliance
Zero Waste: 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.
Note: This definition was updated in December of 2018.
Seattle Public Utilities, Washington - 2004 Planning Group of the Zero Waste International Alliance
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.
Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
Zero Waste: efforts to reduce Solid Waste generation waste to nothing, or as close to nothing as possible, by minimizing excess consumption and maximizing the recovery of Solid Wastes through Recycling and Composting.
State of Connecticut
Zero Waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century. It includes 'recycling' but goes beyond recycling by taking a 'whole system' approach to the vast flow of resources and waste through human society.
Instead of viewing used materials as garbage in need of disposal, materials are recognized as valuable resources. A pile of 'trash' represents community and economic opportunity including jobs and new products from raw materials.
The zero waste approach seeks to maximize recycling, minimize waste, reduce consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.
Redesigns the current, one-way industrial system into a circular system modeled on Nature's successful strategies–creating products and packaging that are durable, can be reused or easily recycled
Provides waste-based business opportunities to create jobs from discards
Recognizes the importance of producer responsibility
Aims to eliminate rather than manage waste
Works to end tax payer subsidies for use of virgin materials enabling reused and recycled products to compete.
A Zero Waste Community can be achieved through action plans and measures that significantly reduce waste and pollution. These measures will include encouragement of residents, businesses, and agencies to judiciously use, reuse, and recycle materials, and motivation of businesses to manufacture and market less toxic and more durable, repairable, reusable, recycled, and recyclable products. The City hereby establishes an intermediate goal of reducing its residential waste stream and meeting the State's Solid Waste Management Plan goals by 2024.
San Francisco, California
Zero waste means that we send zero discards to the landfill or high-temperature destruction. Instead, products are designed and used according to the principle of highest and best use and the waste reduction hierarchy:
Zero waste is a philosophy and design framework that promotes reuse, recycling, and conservation programs, but also, and more importantly, emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life cycle of products, processes, and systems. This comprehensive systems-approach promotes waste prevention by:
Having products and packaging designed for the environment,
Reducing the materials used in products and packaging,
Using less toxic, more benign materials in production and manufacturing,
Providing longer product lives by developing more durable products, and
Having products that are repairable and easily disassembled at the end of their useful life.
San Jose, California
Zero waste is a perception change. It requires rethinking what we have traditionally regarded as garbage and treating all materials as valued resources instead of items to discard. Zero waste entails shifting consumption patterns, more carefully managing purchases, and maximizing the reuse of materials at the end of their useful life. Achieving zero waste entails encouraging San Jose, its residents, and its businesses to reevaluate what we view as waste.
King County, Washington
King County adopted a policy to work toward Zero Waste of Resources by 2030, meaning that materials of economic value, whether for reuse, resale, or recycling, won't be put in the garbage and end up in the landfill.
Zero Waste is an ambitious goal to divert 90% of waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040 using a "whole system" approach to evaluate and manage the flow of resources and waste created by our communities… By approving the Zero Waste Strategic Plan, the City Council established three major benchmark goals for achieving Zero Waste:
Reducing by 20 percent the per capita solid waste disposed to landfills by 2012,
Diverting 75 percent of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2020, and
Diverting 90 percent of solid waste from landfills and incinerators by 2040
Zero Waste Principles promote the highest and best use of materials to eliminate waste and pollution, emphasizing a closed-loop system of production and consumption, moving in logical increments toward the goal of zero waste through the core principles of:
Pursuing 'upstream' re-design strategies to reduce the volume and toxicity of discarded products and materials, and promote low-impact or reduced consumption lifestyles;
Fostering and supporting reuse of discarded products and materials to stimulate and drive local economic and workforce development; and
Improving 'downstream' recycling of end-of-life products and materials to ensure their highest and best use.
Los Angeles, California
"Zero Waste" is maximizing diversion from landfills and reducing waste at the source, with the ultimate goal of striving for more-sustainable solid waste management practices. Achieving zero waste will require radical changes in three areas: product creation (manufacturing and packaging), product use (use of sustainable, recycled and recyclable products), and product disposal (resource recovery or landfilling). The City has set a goal of zero waste to landfill by 2025.
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians
Zero Waste has a few definitions, but the philosophy is the same – to reduce the waste that goes to landfills and incinerators to as little as possible (zero is the goal) and to redesign products, packaging and other items so that they can be reused or otherwise avoid the landfill.
County of Hawai'i
"Zero Waste" is a way of life that promotes the goal of reducing the amount of material we throw away and instead reincorporating by-products of one system for use for another system. There is no such thing as "waste" in Nature. In nature, the by-product of one system is feedstock for another system. Only humans have created this thing like "waste." Ancient Hawaiian culture lived this way before the term "Zero Waste" came to be. We can live this way again through small shifts in our daily activities. In this way, we greatly reduce our impact on Hawai'i Island's natural environment, and how much rubbish we generate, protect Hawai'i Island's natural environment, preserve our resources for future generations, and save our community tax dollars.
Oakland's 2020 Zero Waste Goal is to cut the City's waste disposal by 90 percent (compared to 2005). Oakland's pursuit of a Zero Waste Goal will be guided by an environmental hierarchy for 'highest and best use" of materials and pollution prevention in all phases of production, use, and disposition of products and materials. Zero Waste goes beyond recycling discarded materials. It considers the vast flow of resources and waste through our society and economy, and moves to eliminate waste.
Zero Waste is a philosophy and design framework that promotes not only reuse, recycling, and conservation programs, but also, and more importantly, emphasizes sustainability by considering the entire life-cycle of products, processes, and systems.
Asheville, North Carolina
Zero Waste is a goal to re-design resource lifecycles so that materials are reused and waste is minimal. Discarded materials become resources that are recycled back into nature or to the marketplace to be reused again.
Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District
Though there are many definitions for Zero Waste, it is simply a "no-waste," sustainable approach to managing the production and life cycle of goods. Such an approach is very much in keeping with the Vermont traditions of thrift and conservation.
Zero Waste is a holistic approach to addressing the problem of unsustainable resource flows. Zero Waste encompasses waste eliminated at the source through product design and producer responsibility, and waste reduction strategies further down the supply chain such as recycling, reuse and composting.
Communities and governments that implement Zero Waste Programs are striving to switch from long-term waste management through disposal or incineration to value-added resource recovery systems that will help build sustainable local economies.
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6. Community Champions & Partners
Learn about community champions or partners who have (or are) using zero waste products or contribute to the establishment of zero waste products here.
Working towards a world without waste through public education and practical application of Zero Waste principles.
The Zero Waste International Alliance has been established to promote positive alternatives to landfill and incineration and to raise community awareness of the social and economic benefits to be gained when waste is regarded as a resource base upon which can be built both employment and business opportunity.
The simple technology and methods required to achieve Zero Waste exist in every community around the world. The Zero Waste International Alliance can connect you to leaders in the field who can provide your community with the models, the projects, the people and the means to help you develop Zero Waste as your ultimate goal.
The Zero Waste International Alliance:
initiates and facilitates research and information sharing for the promotion of Zero Waste
builds capacity to effectively implement Zero Waste
sets standards for evaluating the achievement of Zero Waste
The Zero Waste International Alliance operates at the international, national and local level and involves all sectors of society.
ZWIA Mission Statement
Working toward a world without wasting through public education and practical application of Zero Waste principles.
ZWIA Charter Principles
Convert wasting to managing resources for the benefits of local production and the creation of a sustainable society.
Redesign products and methods of production to eliminate waste by mimicking natural processes and closed-loops
Resist incineration and land filling in order to promote innovation in resource conservation and methods of production
Collaborate with others with common interests worldwide.
Are you or will you be a community champion or partner in establishing Zero Waste Products ? Contact us and tell us your story!