What is zero waste?

Zero waste is a term that has been used by communities, businesses and organizations around the world, however, no definitive definition of the term exists and understanding of the concept varies widely between groups. Interpretations differ most substantially when zero waste is expressed as a theory compared to its use as an operational or practical goal. As a theory, zero waste is described as a holistic and aggressive goal that aims to eliminate the very concept of waste, where all products and processes are designed to avoid the generation of all waste and potential toxins. In practice, zero waste is typically defined as zero waste to landfill or incineration through end-of-pipe tactics such as materials recycling.

To gather an understanding of the philosophical foundations of zero waste I studied some of the original and most influential zero waste theorists including Dr. Paul Palmer, GrassRoots Recycling Network, Bea Johnson of the Zero Waste Home, Zero Waste International Alliance, Gary Liss, Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Denventer of Urban Ore and Eric Lombardi of Eco-Cycle. In addition, Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff and the book Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough provide essential perspectives on  the production of waste and elimination tactics. Although extremely active and interconnected, a singular understanding of zero waste doesn’t exist amongst this group.

Expressing zero waste as a theory allows for the construction of an unrestricted, ideal model of the concept which can be used as a foundation from which zero waste practices can be built and evaluated. Towards this end, my Master in Environmental Studies thesis research (2011-2012) proposes that  zero waste theory be expressed and understood as the following set of seven essential elements as outlined below:

1. Waste is anything unusable, unwanted and unrecyclable
2. Zero waste is a visionary goal
3. Waste must be avoided, not minimized or reduced
4. Waste is evidence of poor design
5. Utilize the precautionary principle to eliminate potential toxins
6. Adhere to the principle of highest and best use
7. Recognize and address institutional and ideological barriers

3 thoughts on “What is zero waste?

  1. Pingback: Have Yourself a Handmade Christmas « Trash Backwards

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