Zero waste element three: Waste must be avoided, not minimized or reduced

Within the concept of zero waste, ‘zero’ refers to the goal of absolute elimination of waste as opposed to minimization or reduction. If zero waste was about reduction, it would be called ‘less waste,’ but as Cradle to Cradle authors say, being less bad isn’t good enough (2002, p. 45).

Although genuine examples of zero waste practice may not be available today, with most efforts resulting in waste at some point, the goal of zero is holistic and persistent. Reductions of unusable, unwanted and unrecyclable materials are admirable achievements, but reductions, even up to 99%, do not fulfill the goal of zero waste.

Attempts to minimize, reduce or ‘manage’ waste rather than avoid can often “simply shift pollution problems from one environmental medium to another” (WWF, 1991, p. xi). Only avoidance of waste in the first place achieves an absolute solution, as waste that is not generated cannot cause any problems (Kharbanda & Stallworthy, 1990). While this is an approach that seems obvious it is one that has received very little, if not the least, amount of attention in practice (Kharbanda & Stallworthy, 1990).

Many will argue that zero waste is an unattainable goal, yet within several industries the goal of zero is perfectly reasonable. Take for example the aim of zero accidents on a construction site or zero preventable deaths within a hospital (Palmer, 2004). While a certain number of accidents and preventable deaths are likely to occur, continuous efforts and improvements are made towards the goal of zero. In response to critics who argue zero waste isn’t possible you must ask, “If you’re not for zero waste, how much waste are you for?”

To accept anything less than the total avoidance of waste, through reduction or minimization techniques, may maximize the detrimental effects of waste such as resource depletion or pollution. McDonough and Braungart argue that these tactics will, “in fact, achieve the opposite; it will let industry finish off everything, quietly, persistently and completely” (2002, p. 62). They theorize that a quick collapse of the ecosystem would allow a greater chance of regeneration compared to a “slow, deliberate, and efficient destruction of the whole” (2002, p. 63).

Further to this point, McDonough and Braungart argue that zero waste is limited by the ‘be less bad’ approach and suggest that instead of aiming for neutrality by causing no harm, all products and processes should achieve maximum benefit for the environment and human health (McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p. 67). In addition, they argue that the very concept of waste should be eliminated (McDonough & Braungart, 2002).  This seems to be the case within some cultures as activist Julia Butterfly Hill explains, “I contacted many of my indigenous friends over the years to see if they have the words waste, disposal or trash in their languages and so far no one has found the words” (as cited in Palmer, 2004, p. 87).

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.

World Wildlife Fund. (1991). Getting at the Source: Strategies for Reducing Municipal Solid Waste. The final report of the Strategies for Source Reduction Steering Committee. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund & The Conservation Foundation.

Kharbanda, O.P., Stallworth, E.A. (1990). Waste Management: Towards a Sustainable Society. Auburn House. New York.

Palmer, Paul. (2004). Getting to Zero Waste. California: Purple Sky Press.


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