Zero waste element five: Utilize the precautionary principle to eliminate potential toxins

Besides waste, zero waste theory also aims to eliminate potential toxins to avoid environmental and human health detriment. Employing the precautionary principle means that if there is potential, but not absolute evidence, that a substance may cause environmental or human health harm the substance should be avoided.

It is well known that some products contain toxic elements and in many cases these substances are essential to production, most notably in electronics. Because of the potential harm embedded in these products they are treated with special care as hazardous wastes. But harmful toxins are also present in other items generally assumed to be safe such as running shoes, carpets and clothing. Unexpected and potentially dangerous ingredients within consumer products are what Cradle to Cradle authors refer to as “products plus” as consumers buy the desired item or service along with undesirable additions and potential consequences (2002, p. 38).

Elimination of these unexpected toxins is most crucial as mitigation tactics are not in place to reduce harm from the use or disposal of these ‘products plus.’ Since not every shoe, carpet or piece of clothing contains toxins, such elements are unnecessary and elimination should prove to be uncomplicated. In the meantime, consumers must be informed of potential dangers.

If toxins are deemed to be absolutely essential to the production of a good, as they are within many electronics, they must be treated as ‘technical nutrients.’ Again, the term comes from Cradle to Cradle and refers to non-biological materials that cannot be beneficially consumed by microorganisms or animals. Until safer alternatives are found, such nutrients must be designed to be safely returned and recycled in a closed-loop cycle (McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p. 109).

Zero waste elements
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


McDonough, William & Branugart, Michael. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. North Point Press. New York.

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