What Does Zero Waste Mean?
When you hear the term zero waste, what do you think of? And why does it matter?
In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American threw away, on average, 4.4 pounds of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day. Annually, that amounts to about 169 million tons of waste created by Americans (1). From that waste, only 34 percent was diverted to recycling or compost, the rest either destined for the landfill or an incinerator. The EPA also reports that roughly 95 percent of food that could be composted ends up in our landfills (2).
So what do these statistics mean to us? They are just a few examples that show the scope of waste generated in the US, and that the vast majority of the resources that leave American homes are never recovered or reused for another purpose. Does that seem wasteful? I believe it is.
Communities all over the country define zero waste in many ways, however, they all focus on two basic principles. These principles are: 1. reducing solid waste, or as we commonly know it- trash, to nothing, or as little as possible; and 2. functioning through a hierarchy of ways to manage waste- starting from keeping waste from ever existing, and ending with sending waste to a landfill.
These definitions expand beyond the the typical 3 R’s of waste management, and looks more like:
Refuse Reduce Reuse Refurbish Recycle Compost Landfill
Many organizations go even further, and consider the development and life cycle of all products when looking at zero waste systems. The US Conference of Mayors holds that “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” (3).
All this to say, when we reimagine our world without waste,
what does it look like?
Many believe it starts with only creating products that are high quality and reusable. This philosophy, of using our resources in the most efficient and valued way, leads us to another up-and-coming concept; the circular economy.
The circular economy is a design that challenges our current, linear economy. It’s goal is to preserve the embedded capital, energy, and labor costs of products (4). Throughout most of our manufacturing history, we have created, used, and discarded of materials in a linear fashion. It begins with extracting raw resources from the Earth, producing them into a usable product, using them throughout their functioning lifespan, and then discarding them to sit in a landfill, with all of their resources and latent energy unredeemable. The circular economy challenges this model entirely. It helps us aim for eliminating waste, by keeping resources in the economy that would otherwise be considered waste. This can be accomplished by literally recovering resources in waste, but is also primarily achieved by designing better products, and making them in an efficient way.
In a small sense, we can imagine the circular economy and the linear economy as if they were two ways to drink your coffee in the morning: one with a reusable mug, and another with a disposable cup. A paper or plastic cup is a single-use product, and once its purpose is complete, it’s often destined to live for eternity in a landfill. That’s a lot of energy, labor, and resources used just to have something used once, and disposed of. The alternative, using a reusable mug, keeps those resources from being used and going to waste, and it can accomplish our goal, of drinking a cup of coffee, over and over again.
Although the formation and development of a circular economy is a global endeavor, which will take many years to complete, we as individuals can take its lessons and apply them to our everyday decisions as consumers.
WE CAN question why products which can never be reused, recycled, or refurbished are created.
WE CAN voice our concerns to companies that create wasteful products, as well as to our representatives in government.
WE CAN find better products with more value and less waste, and we can choose to purchase them instead.
WE CAN insist that our organizations- our schools, cities, workplaces, and homes- do the same.
When we are considering the footprint we are leaving on the Earth, we are forced to be better, more creative thinkers and consumers.
A zero waste reality for America is far away from our current 34 percent diversion rate, but it’s not impossible. More and more cities, organizations, businesses, and schools are making the first steps towards reducing their impact through following zero waste principles. As individuals, we can learn and change our habits and thoughts to be more conscious of our material footprint.
Why does zero waste matter? Because it helps us be better stewards of our resources and planet. That’s a mission we can all get behind.
- Sarah Quirk, Zero Waste Schools Lead, Impact Earth
(1) United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet.” 2014. Web.
(2) United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013.” 2013. Web.
(3) United States Conference of Mayors, “Resolutions: In Support of Municipal Zero Waste Principles and a Hierarchy of Materials Management.” 2018. Web.
(4) McKinsey & Company, “Moving Toward a Circular Economy.” 2014. Web.