Zero Waste- What does it actually mean?

As it is National Zero Waste Week I wanted to discuss the term zero waste, its meanings and how it can help create a sustainable waste infrastructure. Much focus in recent CSR policy for businesses has been on achieving the ultimate goal of zero waste. Indeed many companies have set a target to achieve zero waste and others say they have already achieved it.

Searching around the internet it is however very difficult to find any clear definitions of zero waste. Most articles class zero waste as a goal, concept or philosophy. Wikipedia defines it as ‘a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycle so that all products are reused. Any trash sent to landfills is minimal’.

 The Zero Waste International Alliance definition is that “zero waste is a visionary goal that can energize people, communities and businesses to change their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.  Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.  Zero waste is about setting the bar high and continually working towards it. Just like no one would consider their work done on airline safety if 30% of planes crashed, zero waste is about continual improvement to get to zero. Some people say zero waste or darn close and those who decrease their waste by 90% are considered to have achieved zero waste”.

It should be pointed out that at no point is zero waste actually meaning no waste is being produced and neither does it mean zero waste is being sent to landfill. However the idea is to set goals and encourage people and businesses to recycle and divert waste from landfills. The focus is also on production and preventing waste from being produced in the first place.

According to the Local Government Association Britain will run out of landfill space in less than eight years at the current rate of waste being sent to landfill. A total of 57 million tonnes of waste were sent to landfill in 2008 and there is only 650 million cubic metres of landfill capacity remaining. However the problem is not just where to put the waste; it is how long we will be able to find the resources to generate and produce the waste in the first place.  Resource management is going to be key factor in driving a sustainable waste management infrastructure. We will have no choice but to shift from being a disposable world when our resources on the planet start running low. Prices will continue to rise for these resources and eventually we will have no choice but to build things to last, reuse what we have and recycle what remains.

The term zero waste is great in driving change and encouraging people and businesses to move toward sustainable practices.  It is the first step in setting goals for businesses. However I still believe we all need clearer definitions to work towards. If one company is claiming they have achieved zero waste or zero waste to landfill but actually 95% of their waste is still actually going to landfill it causes confusion and mixed messages for everyone. We need a clear and concise target and definition for all businesses to work towards and we can get on with helping businesses achieve these goals.

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