Let’s dig deeper into learning what Zero Waste IS by busting some of the myths and greenwashing around what Zero Waste ISN’T:
Zero Waste is not just 100% recycling
Yes, we do want to recycle everything…but recycling comes AFTER waste prevention, product redesign, and reuse. Even when everything is recycled, there can still be badly designed products or packaging that waste energy, water, and other scarce resources.
Take bottled water, for example. Even if we recycled 100% of our bottled water containers, tap water still uses far fewer resources, produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and greatly reduces toxic emissions.
A Zero Waste approach evaluates a product’s entire lifecycle, not just if it can be recycled or composted.
Zero Waste does not require getting to absolute zero
The Zero Waste International Alliance defines Zero Waste as 90% diversion from landfills and incinerators. And the exciting news is that more than 85% of the materials in your trash can be recovered and resold today with existing markets.
That means we can make a dramatic shift toward Zero Waste today. And while we’re moving toward Zero Waste, we can work with industry to fulfill their role by redesigning their products and packaging so there are no more leftover, toxic, and non-recyclable items.
When we choose Zero Waste, it does not require getting to absolute zero. We are committing to pursue the goal of zero.
Zero Waste does not include waste incineration or current waste-to-energy (WTE) practices
When you burn something to make energy, it can’t be used again, and that is the ultimate act of wasting. Waste-to-energy (WTE) systems perpetuate our throw-away society and unsustainable consumption. When we burn materials to produce energy, the resources used to make those products and packaging are destroyed, which means we must continue to extract more resources from the Earth to make new products. And we’ll use MORE energy in the process—more than was generated in the WTE facility. That is not moving us toward a circular economy and that is not Zero Waste.
Mass burn incineration, pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc systems are all WTE systems that destroy resources and are not part of Zero Waste. Get the facts on why these technologies are bad for our environment, economy and our communities.
Zero Waste only accepts one current technology for making energy from waste: anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digesters use a low-temperature thermal process to speed up the decomposition of biodegradable materials. The resulting biogas can be used to produce energy and the remaining solids, called digestate, can be conventionally composted. Learn more about anaerobic digestion technology and its applications.
“Zero Waste to landfill” is NOT Zero Waste
Many companies and communities are adopting a “Zero Waste to landfill” goal instead of a Zero Waste goal. The problem with having a singular focus on the landfill implies that making energy from waste by burning it is preferable. Waste-to-energy (WTE) is a disposal technology that destroys resources forever—it doesn’t reduce waste or protect natural resources, and in the end we will use more energy to manufacture new products from virgin materials than we produced burning trash for energy.
The true goal of Zero Waste is not just zero waste to landfill or zero waste-to-energy, but redesigning our entire cycle of resource extraction, consumption, and discard management so no resources are wasted at any point along the way.
There are legitimate businesses making great strides toward Zero Waste: Nearly half of General Motors (GM) factories recycle and reuse an average of 97 percent of their discards. But companies or communities that tout “Zero Waste to landfill” and then burn half of their discards are greenwashing their efforts, and we need to demand that they aim for true Zero Waste.
Zero Waste is not waste management – it is resource management
The modern waste industry was born out of the need to reduce public health risks from waste. Its goal is to manage waste in an economically and environmentally acceptable way. It accepts waste as a given.
The Zero Waste industry aims to eliminate the very concept of waste. There is no such thing as waste in nature, only resources—so we need a paradigm shift from managing waste to managing resources. And to get there, we need everyone on board, from citizens to government officials to industrial designers.