Zero waste is a big idea. And it’s an idea that is often accompanied by a resounding “Sounds good, but is it possible?” As Dr. Paul Palmer, the original zero waste theorist explains,
Over many years of discussing [zero waste], I have heard many listeners immediately respond that it is impossible. It cannot possibly work. It is almost funny to see how convinced many people are on this point. No matter that they have probably never spent more than the merest few seconds considering why they are so certain or what assumptions their belief is based on and how those assumptions might be proven false (Palmer, 2004, p. 34).
To even consider the idea of zero waste, one must be able to look beyond these immediate assumptions and envision a world without waste. Those that pursue this target must be willing to take a leadership role and change the ideological and institutional systems that currently facilitate the production of waste. To be sure, zero waste is not a goal that will be achieved overnight. It is a perpetual target. It is for that reason that zero waste must be pursued with perseverance, passion and dedication.
As a visionary goal, the solutions implemented to achieve zero waste need to be equally visionary. They need to transcend and transform barriers, planning not just for what is possible but for how things could and should be. The unconventional solutions that zero waste theory advocates for challenge the status quo by attempting to question and change systems so deeply engrained that they are assumed to be unchangeable and “just the way things are” (Kingwell, 1999).
The production of waste is one of these seemingly unchangeable ‘facts’ as many argue that even in nature waste is created and therefore impossible to avoid. This is where the clarified definition of waste as described in element one become most important. With the understanding that waste is anything unusable, unwanted and unrecyclable it becomes clear that natural systems produce no waste. As George Washington Carver wrote in 1893, “The earnest student has already learned that nature does not expend its forces upon waste material, but that each created thing is an indispensable factor of the great whole” (as cited in Ferrell, 2002). In other words, all natural discards are usable, wanted and recyclable within the ecosystem.
The reason that conventional solutions will not satisfy zero waste goals is that they cannot achieve success over the long term since they work within the same system that caused the problem in the first place. The problematic system in reference has been given various names by zero waste theorists such as the “take-make-waste” model, the “garbage mentality” or “cradle to grave” (Leonard, 2010, p. xxi; McDonough & Braungart, 2002, p. 62; Palmer, 2004, p. 159).
Solutions created within this status quo system merely mitigate or reduce the impact of waste by stating the highest goal is to get rid of waste, make it disappear or take up less space (Palmer, 2004). The myriad of new biodegradable plastics and incineration are examples of the garbage mentality in action where the main objective is to destroy discards or at least make them take up less space. As a World Wildlife Fund report on source reduction declared,
The various problems caused by products today – both in the ways we make them and use them – cannot be easily fixed by traditional approaches and add-on solutions. Creative, new approaches are needed to get at the source of our garbage problems by designing, making and using products differently (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 1991, p. ix).
Creative, unconventional, visionary solutions are needed to avoid the production of waste rather than merely making better use of waste as compared to landfilling or incineration. Both Palmer and Cradle to Cradle authors McDonough and Braungart list a multitude of visionary ideas in their books (Palmer, 2004; McDonough & Braungart, 2002). As one example, courtesy of Palmer, current paper recycling involves mechanical energy and chemicals to break paper fibres apart, bleach them and glue them back together with the fibres degrading with each processing. As Palmer aims to preserve function over materials he states that the paper should retain its original shape and composition – it is the ink that needs to be removed. He suggests many ideas including inks that disappear when exposed to a certain chemical (non-toxic of course), high temperatures, magnetic forces or perhaps microwave radiation (Palmer, 2004, p. 259). More of Palmer’s ideas are freely available on his website.
Zero waste aims not to treat the symptoms but to eliminate the cause. Zero waste heralds bold change and will pose a fundamental challenge to ‘business as usual’ (Platt & Seldman, 2000; Montague, n.d.). These changes and challenges will most certainly not be easy to implement or achieve. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal to achieve zero waste to conserve resources and eliminate all harm to the environment and human health must be maintained. Such a visionary goal demands visionary, unconventional solutions that are constructed outside of the status quo ‘take-make-waste’ model.
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
Ferrell, John. (2002). George Washington Carver and Henry Ford: Pioneers of Zero Waste. Retrieved from http://www.zerowaste.org/publications/PIONEERS.PDF
Kingwell, Mark. (1999). Better Living: In pursuit of happiness from Plato to Prozac. Penguin Books. Canada.
Palmer, Paul. (2004). Getting to Zero Waste. California: Purple Sky Press.
Platt, Brenda. Seldman, Neil. (2000). Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000. GrassRoots Recycling Network. Retrieved from http://www.grrn.org/assets/pdfs/wasting/WRUS.pdf
Leonard, Annie. (2010). The Story of Stuff. Free Press. New York.
McDonough, William & Branugart, Michael. (2002). Cradle to Cradle. North Point Press. New York.
Montague, Peter. (n.d.). What is Zero Waste. GrassRoots Recycling Network. Retrieved from http://www.grrn.org/page/what-zero-waste
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.