Saturday, January 17, 2009

Zero Waste - A Much Better Way

The waste hierarchy refers to the Image via Wikipedia

Zero Waste Is the New Recycling - Stop Trashing the Climate by David Biddle

There is a somewhat new environmental concept coming into the mainstream these days. It's called "Zero Waste." Zero waste expands on traditional recycling and is the idea that we should be designing our waste streams to gradually disappear. Besides curbside and office recycling, zero waste advocates calls for reusable packaging, recyclable products that can be sent back to producers, and consumer items that can be upgraded rather than replaced.

Many zero waste options are already in use by a huge portion of the U.S. population. Take online music. If you download the latest Britney Spears album or the soundtrack to "Slumdog Millionaire," you're directly contributing to zero waste. No more jewel box packaging, no more transportation costs, no requirement for the complex CD manufacturing process. The same principle can be found with online software upgrades.

Taking a homemade lunch to work rather than going to McDonalds is also a zero waste opportunity. Obviously electronic publications reduce the environmental impact of the printed word. And using cloth bags while grocery shopping is now becoming very common.

The real issue that zero waste gets at, is not saving landfill space or even natural resources. Zero waste advocates point out that reduced waste translates into reduced energy requirements; and reduced energy requirements mean fewer emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In short, zero waste is one of the keys to solving the global warming problem.

The long-term benefits of zero waste are explored at length in a landmark report published in the summer of 2008 entitled "Stop Trashing the Climate". Written by staffers at non-profit advocacy groups: the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Eco-Cycle, and Gaia, "Stop Trashing the Climate" reports that setting a national goal of 1% reduction of waste per year would be the equivalent of eliminating one-fifth of the coal fired power plants in the United States by 2050.

According to this report, a serious zero waste effort can reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by almost 37% across all sectors of the U.S. economy. The most important thing to understand here is that for recycling and composting and other forms of waste minimization, the technology is available now. Most of these measures, in fact, are extremely simple. They just require businesses, institutions and municipal governments to re-tool and re-focus.

Indeed, local governments around North America are making the commitment to zero waste through executive orders and even legislation. Boulder, CO, Seattle, WA, San Francisco, Toronto, and Halifax, Nova Scotia have all embraced zero waste as communities. Principles include investment and support for recycling, composting, reuse businesses, green design, and limitations on packaging. Zero waste communities see that the key to success is measuring waste reduction and gradually building towards elimination of waste altogether.

Is it possible to completely eliminate all waste from a complex, industrial society? Only time will tell. If you don't set goals that you want to achieve, how can succeed at anything?

David Biddle is a freelance writer and an environmental consultant. He writes about a diverse set of topics including: the cultural implications of global warming; recycling and solid waste policy; and energy efficiency and renewable power sources.

Mr. Biddle has published articles and essays with The Harvard Business Review, GetUnderground, In Business Magazine, Buzzworm, BioCycle, Resource Recycling, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Read more at his blog:

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