What is zero waste?

Filed in by on August 25, 2008 2 Comments

If we are to define zero waste it is helpful initially to look at a working example of zero waste that already exists in an operational system and has working principles that can be modeled.

Zero waste does not occur spontaneously in modern human civilization. We are the only species on the planet that produces waste that cannot be reused or assimilated back into the natural environment. Zero waste is an ideal and also an imperative that will become more pressing as our usage on natural resources increases and out output of toxic and destructive leftovers increases. Zero waste is a term to describe not just a philosophy of life but a prescription for practical action and lifestyle. It is also one of the most essential requirements of modern design and manufacture if we are to avoid irrevocable environmental changes that threaten to contaminate and destabilise the eco-system.

The concept of zero waste is demonstrated in the organic world, where every life form or biological process is useful to the system at every stage of its life cycle. This provides zero waste and zero material redundancy in the eco-system. The change of organic matter from one state to another is modeled in both primal driving forces in nature; the growth into maturity cycle and the decay into decomposition cycle. these processes affect all organic life forms. At every level in the natural world we see usefulness through reuse, recycling and reintegration of resources. Nothing is wasted or becomes unwanted and at every stage all organic matter becomes food, or reused in other processes in the eco-system.

Through the systems of biodiversity, the natural food chain and the growth-decay model, nature shows itself as the great opportunist and reuses every component. This is known as a ‘closed loop system’ and has sustained the planet successfully in perfect balance for millions of years. The human species has developed design and manufacturing systems to produce inorganic synthetic materials that stabilise carbon based compounds, causing materials to remain static and biologically inert. Synthetic materials are dead, which means they can not transform through growth or decay into new materials that can be used in the natural eco-system. These materials become trapped in a stage of uselessness and become waste, rubbish and superfluous. They are effectively ‘excluded’ from the biological system.

There is potential for inorganic materials to be readily reused in manufacturing systems, by virtue of the fact that they don’t decompose and change state. Plastics, glass and metals can be recovered after use, reprocessed and reused. Unfortunately this is not a closed loop system, as many unrecoverable waste products are generated in the recycling processes. Additional problems exist due to many social and economic factors that encourage excessive consumerism and over consumption. The result is an increasing volume of unused materials that have little or no value in the consumer system.

The natural world provides a workable zero waste model that is not compatible with many modern manufacturing materials that are impervious to biological decay processes. To make matters worse, some waste materials are affected to some degree by decay, but at the risk or releasing unstable and toxic components into the natural eco-system. Material not only accumulates, but becomes a potential disruptor to natural biological processes.

Given the above situation, the concept of zero waste is a challenge in modern culture. One approach is to adopt a lifestyle of abstinence from any commercial product that provides waste through packaging, built in obsolescence, or has no reuse after fair wear and tear has rendered it unserviceable. Such a lifestyle precludes most synthetic items that contain plastics, one of the largest group of non-biodegradable materials. This is a purist approach that requires a major shift in values and habits that few people adopt.

There is however another less radical approach that ustilises important concepts of careful acquisitions, imaginative reuse and recycling of leftover materials. This is not strictly a totally zero waste system, as there are other factors involved in the reuse/recycle stage, such as transportation, reprocessing and re-manufacturing activities which invariably produce other environmental waste. However, a partial zero waste state can be achieved both by individuals and manufacturers.

For the forward looking individual or business, zero waste has valuable implications to costs, as well as benefits to the environment. Every material that is not recovered, recycled and reused but wasted has an initial cost that is consolidated once it is lost from the system. In a closed loop of use-recycle-re-use, those costs are minimised if materials can be recovered. In an ideal system, materials are constantly recovered, recycled and reused. A closed loop manufacturing/ consumer system has significant savings not only on raw materials and production costs but in addition, requires less resources from the environment.

The zero-waste strategy aims to turn the outputs from every resource-use into the input for re-use. If this fails then it is considered a weakness in the system that needs to be re-factored.

The biological model is an efficient system that reduces all components back to basic organic building blocks of life. This creates a self sustaining, self reproducing and self nourishing environment. Many materials are intercepted before the complete decay process, such as animal and vegetable matter taken in the food chain and materials for building. However, the residual waste from the food chain still achieves final decay and thus reclamation of basic building blocks in the system.

In the human synthetic manufacture system, we are now beginning to emulate a more efficient model by designing better more efficient materials that can be recovered post use. We are realising that, unlike the natural eco-system, one of our most pressing problems is that we are exhausting raw materials from the natural world but lack the ability to reduce synthetic materials back to the basic carbon unit to sustain the closed loop system. This is because synthetic production processes immutably change materials beyond the sum of their base components. For instance, we cannot yet reduce plastics back to the petroleum based hydrocarbons that they are made from. This is a problem as the environment cannot maintain our need for raw materials if cannot recover them from our processed materials. We do not have a closed loop system which means we can not replenish resources.

True zero waste is not achievable in our present state of manufacturing processes. Even if as individuals we conscientiously recycled everything we used and we had excellent recycling facilities, the processes of transportation, recovery and reuse produces waste products that we are indirectly responsible for, because we provided the recycled materials in the first place. Unless we consume only totally organic, unprocessed products that retain their biological properties of decay, we all contribute to waste in one way or another.

Zero waste is an ideal, but On a personal basis, outside of adopting the model of the natural eco-system, very difficult to attain. At best we can engage best practices of selective consumerism, reduced consumption, local composting, reuse of materials and finally recycling. Manufacturing processes hold a major part in attaining a true zero waste system, by constantly looking for better design models for reuse and recovery of raw materials. Because packaging and transportation make a large contribution in producing unrecoverable materials, the idea of decentralisation and the village community provides a viable option for achieving a self sustaining environment.

The natural zero waste system is also better equipped through its vast biodiversity to absorb discarded organic materials at every step of the growth-decay process. All materials are inexorably reduced to basic carbon components in a process that provides useful bi-products for the system. In contrast the human manufacturing system is more selective in finding usefulness in its bi products. Whereas the natural system is well equipped with parasites, scavengers and other biological ‘janitors’ our consumer cultures do not encourage such opportunism, preferring instead to market “new, better, faster, latest” in preference to proliferating recycle and reuse.

Other issues are now emerging that threaten the integrity of recycling. Due to the excess accumulation of waste products, recycling processes cannot keep up with the supply of recovered materials. Additional problems exist with collection, distribution, cross contamination and hygiene. As a result of commercial factors have been exploited and many recycled materials are exported to different parts of the world for reprocessing.

zero waste systems need careful design to;

- increase opportunistic reuse or materials

- design materials with multiple life reuse

- design materials that integrate with organic processes

- exercise a duty of care for post use materials

- remove designed and perceived obsolescence from products.

- provides incentives for producers and users to recover materials

- provide better facilities to implement material recovery

- emphasis waste prevention before disposal.

- inform, educate and inspire people to more ecological behavior

Since the industrial revolution, the progress of science and technology has advanced rapidly bringing in a new era of manufacturing processes and synthetic materials. Much of these advances have been responsible for cheap and easily produced products made from cracking oil and producing petrochemicals. One of the biggest group of oil based products is plastic polymers. It has to be said that plastics has proliferated at an exception rate over the last 50 years and today it is found in nearly every product, either as a component or in the presentation and packaging. other items from petrochemicals are

Computer chips – Ink – Paint brushes – Telephones – Insecticides – Motorcycle helmets – Clothing – Tents – Shoes – Glue – Skis – Hand lotion – Cd’s – Rubbing alcohol – Credit cards – Crayons – Toilet seats – House paint – Movie film – Disposable nappies – Upholstery – Garden hose – Umbrellas – Milk jugs – Bandages – Antihistamines – Nail polish – Perfume – Luggage – Ballpoint pens – Aspirin – Carpet – Toys – Pesticides – packaging –

To name a but a very few. The list grows constantly. None of these items can be reduced back to the original hydrocarbons of their origin.

If we want to generate better zero waste strategies, we must find alternative methods of production that not only allow better material recovery and reuse, but also provide alternative ways to manufacture these items without oil based raw materials.

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  1. Hi Mr Green,

    That was an excellent coverage of Zero Waste. The most important feature of this movement is the worldwide spread of interested parties. In the US it is part of the business world, along with sustainability. Here it is more in the community but will spread to business as opportunities arise. Also here the issue of incineration is close as well with the possible burning of plastic waste as the “best” alternative to landfill. Zero Waste can reduce this danger if applied to household situations as fully as practicable.

  2. Mr. Green says:

    Thanks John and yes, I agree that business and politicians need to get on board. As one businessman put it. “Waste is a product of bad design – Bad design costs money”. Maybe that’s the most powerful incentive we have amongst those who don’t see the environmnetal imapact as important.

    I was intrigued by a project called Masdar that is a totally zero waste city in the making. I’ve studied the text and videos and it looks very impressive and a model of things to come.

    The irony is that Mubadala Development Company is a wholly owned investment vehicle of the Government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. This initiative was probably built with the billions of dollars from oil revenue. Gota laugh!!

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