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Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Zero Waste Future – The What, Why and How to Get There

Consider for a moment that humans are the only species on our planet that generate waste. That’s not exactly a distinction conveying a higher order of thought!  In a natural cycle, one creature’s cast-offs are another’s food resource.  Our traditional and linear production methods force most waste to be considered garbage. This means a significant amount of money and material is lost by this unnatural approach.

A zero is a perfect circle that stands for nothing. Likewise, nature’s cycle is a perfect circle that stands for everything involved in the growing worldwide waste reduction effort. Zero waste encourages us to look at waste as a resource instead of a disposable burden.  Let’s wade our way through the movement’s philosophy, goals, standardization procedures, and what we can do to help.

Zero Waste Future

The zero waste mentality presents a holistic approach to dealing with our waste.  Waste is the physical result of poorProduct Designer product planning and inefficient design.  According to Zero Waste Alliance, we need to eliminate waste entirely through better design, manufacturing, and following nature’s design cues.

This means that manufacturers will need to take a closer look at each step of a product’s development and consider how to better mimic nature.  Here are a few of the product development phases that require consideration:

  • Design
  • Assembly
  • Packaging
  • Advertisement
  • Transportation
  • Distribution
  • Usage
  • Ease of disassembly—how the products meets its end

This may seem like a lot to consider for every single product on the market.  It begins with educating corporations and product designers, encouraging them to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products and packaging.  This is often called cradle-to-cradle production, meaning the end of one product’s usefulness is the beginning of its own reuse or the discovery of another use for it.

Zero Waste Target Areas

Zero waste does not simply address product design, but extends to promoting corporate accountability and economic sustainability for the betterment of society.  The Grass Roots Recycling Network cites five key zero waste target areas:

  • Redesigning Products and Packaging. This planning starts in the pre-design phase and takes into account the entire  environmental impact associated with a product’s lifecycle.
  • Placing Responsibility on the Producer. Manufacturers are accountable for the impact created by their products and packaging, instead of placing that burden on the consumer.  This shift in responsibility reduces the research and time consumers invest learning the environmental impacts of a product.
  • Investing in Infrastructure, Not Landfills or Incinerators. Reducing waste proportionally reduces the need for hazardous, toxin emitting facilities.  The tax dollars we now spend on landfills could then go toward replacement facilities, such as recycling centers.
  • Ending Taxpayer Subsidies for Wasteful and Polluting Industries. Tax subsidies make the extraction and processing of virgin resource materials convenient. That means there are more benefits to using virgin resources than there are for using recycled or recovered options.  In addition, the landfill and incinerator facilities that produce harmful emissions are not assigned economic penalties, so that disposal costs are kept low.
  • Creating Jobs and New Businesses from Discards. The zero waste approach also focuses on economic sustainability.  From a business model perspective, landfill waste is wasted opportunity.  According to a report published in 2000 by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, “On a per-ton basis, sorting and processing recyclables alone sustains ten times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.”  The report cites that in some cases, recycling-based paper mills and recycled plastic product manufacturers employ 60 times more workers on a per-ton basis than landfills do.  The report adds, “Each recycling step a community takes locally means more jobs, more business expenditures on supplies and services, and more money circulating in the local economy through spending and tax payments.”

Standardizing Business-Related Zero Waste Efforts

Eco Advising TeamMany companies are starting to realize the value of implementing zero waste methodologies and procedures.  Some well-known corporations employ teams of specialists to advise them about all of the potential effects of a given product.  This is a savvy business move because production costs decrease when products are designed for multiple functions.

Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Kraft Foods, and Target are all members of a growing list of companies that the State of California recognizes for waste reduction and/or elimination efforts.  Corporate waste reduction is simply smart. It can account for millions of corporate dollar savings.  Visit the Zero Waste Network website for a listing of companies and their success stories on corporate waste reduction and recycling efforts.  On a global level, the International Standards Organization (ISO) has developed ISO 14001, a set of standards targeted at assessing a business’s sustainability factor.  The ISO 14001 standards do not focus on actual products, but on the production processes associated with a product and their environmental effects.

Sustainability Considerations

Performing a life cycle assessment (LCA) is the basic standard for setting and achieving zero waste goals.  The LCA quantifies the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its lifespan, including the energy consumed during resource extraction and transport.  This provides a standard for manufacturers to use in assessing the green quotient of each potential vendor they consider.  As manufacturers seek to green their own businesses, the LCA provides valuable information from cleaning products to factory emissions.

Setting benchmark standards with policies such as ISO 14001 and LCA is important because sometimes the potential impact of a product or alteration escapesExcess Waste everyone’s notice.  Consider this example cited by a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast about sustainable packaging:  Ireland was looking to do a good service for the environment by placing a tax on those thin plastic bags that often end up in the trash or on the street.  To accommodate this levy, many supermarkets replaced the thin plastic bags with paper bags or reusable bags made from thicker gauge.  Certain stores noted that after the transition, they required triple the number of trucks to transport these heavier, thicker bags.  Additionally, more plastic was imported into Ireland after the levy because consumers relied upon the thin bags to line certain receptacles, requiring custom-made plastic linings.  Who could have known that this well-intentioned transition would require a greater energy investment than the original process?

Incidents such as the Ireland plastic bag levy inspire us to truly consider the far-reaching consequences.  Zero waste methodology is based on ensuring that energy put into positive changes does not outweigh the change itself.  Along those lines, a specific product may be strong in one suit—it may be biodegradable, for instance—but there could be other drawbacks that diminish its green factor.  Zero waste encourages manufacturers and consumers alike to consider products on a contextual basis and assess the pros and cons of each situation.

Start Now

Since the zero waste, maximum-efficiency mentality doesn’t stop with product design, it can be applied wherever possible. This includes our communities, businesses, industrial settings, schools, and homes.  With zero waste, timeliness is a big factor—setting specific goals produces direct and timely results.  Zero waste organizations therefore encourage efficiency-minded communities such as Oakland, California to set specific target dates for achieving their zero waste goals for solid waste, hazardous waste, emissions, and toxics.

This movement encouraging corporations to design recyclable, reusable products and packaging.  Of course, some of this responsibility rests with us as consumers.  The choices that we make will set the level of demand for changes in design and technology that can improve the condition of our planet.  Everyone can get involved in the zero waste movement, from corporate-scale production to single consumer choices.  The benefits are green—for nature and our pockets.  Green is the color of hope for our future.

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