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What is Zero Waste?

By May 10, 2021No Comments

Litter on the streets. Plastics in the waterways. Carbon in the air. These are all forms of waste challenges across America.

Currently, American communities rely upon incineration and landfills to eliminate waste. What happens if landfills are no longer an option? Over the coming decades, landfills may no longer present a viable option for waste removal. Enter the zero waste movement. Zero waste presents a powerful and possible alternative.

Throughout the United States, businesses, communities, regulators, and consumers are starting to explore the idea of creating a waste free world.

First, how do we define zero waste?

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), zero waste means:

“Zero waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

At the most beginner level, the zero waste movement attempts to change the current approach to production and consumption and encourage a more circular approach. The goal of the zero waste movement is to push economies towards the goal of eliminating waste. This means no waste is sent to landfill, incinerators, or the ocean. Instead items are repurposed and reused.

Recycling and conscientious waste management remain a core component of this goal, zero waste extends further than eliminating “end-of-life” waste. Zero waste examines the lifecycle of a product or material, highlighting inefficiencies and unsustainable production and consumption practices.

For those wondering if zero waste is realistic, the answer is yes. Zero waste is not an end goal, but a set of principles to help eliminate waste at all stages of the production chain. The aim is to close the loop, redefine the concept of waste and ensure that resources remain in use for as long as possible with little to no environmental impact.

Keep America Beautiful (our parent organization) recently launched a webinar series exploring Zero Waste Communities. Below are some common questions and answers people have regarding zero waste. 

Questions and Answers About Zero Waste. Answers lightly edited for clarity.

Q1: Why are there so many variables in what can or cannot be recycled across the country? Why aren’t there national standards?

There are several factors. First, materials need to be collected in sufficient quantities to achieve economies of scale. If there is not enough material, or it has to be transported further to its facility, then the recycling processors will not invest to establish systems for those materials. Second, different processing facilities have different technology for sorting. Newer facilities have more efficient machinery, robotic sorters, and require less human labor so they’re frequently able to recycle things that older facilities cannot. Finally, there are a lot of newer plastics that have only recently been developed as materials sciences have advanced. Thinner, lighter plastic uses fewer petrochemicals and other materials in production, which is good and often touted as a reduction of pollution by manufacturers. But it is also harder to recycle and when these materials are collected they’re mostly taking up empty space in trucks.- Cooper Martin, National League of Cities Director of Sustainability and Solutions

Q2: Organics seem key to a zero waste, but how do rural communities get there?

For almost any community, the only way is through public investment. Raising the funds through taxes or waste fees can be done by any level of government, and it can be structured in different ways that are more or less equitable, but it has to be done.  – Cooper Martin

Q3: Given that recycling has never kept pace with production, what is the role of source reduction – i.e. producing less plastic packaging – in promoting less waste?

Source reduction is essential. Right now, consumers pay for both purchasing and disposal. Cities struggle because the only authority they have to increase taxes or raise revenues is to charge their residents for the service. States and the federal government should use their authority to raise revenue through taxes or fees on the producers to contribute. This would create incentives to produce cleaner, more easily recyclable packaging and other products, and it would create revenue that could be used to upgrade recycling programs and other sustainable waste management facilities.- Cooper Martin

Q4: Where about policies to phase-out single use plastics in municipalities? The EU passed a comprehensive single use plastics ban, but the US has not. 

 In the US we have different challenges than the EU and rules vary by state and municipality. The State of California in general and the City of LA in particular are making progress on recycling plastics as well as phasing out plastics that cannot be recycled. LA implemented plastic straws on request in 2018- 2019. Currently the LA government is working on an ordinance for utensils and condiments on request.  This will help reduce the tons of single use non recyclable plastics destined to the landfills. – Alex Helou, City of Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment Assistant Director

Q5: How can we shape the Zero Waste conversation to be more about reduction and are there any examples you can provide of a lightbulb moment where changes were made from recycling/reuse to reduction?

We have been taught to recycle as the key, but reduction should be the first step, so as not to create waste in the first place that later needs to be reused or recycled or landfilled.

I think the best place to start is to make waste reduction very personal.  We need to have each person look at their own behavior/ habits and see what it is they tend to do that ends up in their bins, and what little changes they can do.  For example – do I forget to bring my reusable bag?  Do I tend to buy convenience foods that are highly packaged?  Do I use a reusable bottle or buy bottled/packaged/disposal drinks?  When we make it personal — it hits home a bit more — we tend to want to take care of ourselves first then to think of things globally in which we may not know how to solve.  I think we have to make it more personal on a household or individual level.  Does someone tend to use a million paper towels to clean up a spill — how about using washable rags?  Do you go through tons of tissues because you have allergies  –use washable handkerchiefs.

Successful Reduction Campaigns the City of LA has executed:

Single use water bottles are a good example of switching from recycling to reduction. The push is now to eliminate single use water bottles that are recyclable and switch to refillable bottles. This was demonstrated during LASAN’s Earth Day event where water fill stations were set up and attendees were given refillable bottles. (This is also a reduction measure for the LA Green Business program)  – Alex Helou

 Raise the Bar-Summer of 2021

Zero waste starts in the home and then the communities. Adopting sustainable practices has never been easier! Today you have the options of switching single-use plastics with reusable ones, taking your own bags to grocery stores, shopping sustainable products, and so much more.

This summer we are launching a new initiative in Prince William County called Raise the Bar. With this campaign, we invite Prince William County residents to “Raise The Bar” on local sustainability measures and take charge of the health and beauty of our shared community. If you are interested in learning how to adopt sustainable practices at your home, Raise the Bar is for you. Track your progress and you can earn prizes!

Zero waste is possible. The best way to effect change in your community is to start with your home and personal sustainability decisions.

Register to participate in Raise the Bar: