There is no one definition of the term zero waste. It means different things in different places, and it is popular with many politicians around the world, as it answers a popular wish perfectly.
The only way it is possible to define the zero waste philosophy is to study the schemes which describe themselves as zero waste projects around the world.
The “Zero Waste” or “No Waste” goals in the places which were studied by the Green Alliance in 2006, were found to mean in effect no un-recycled waste, and not much more.
Yes, most are articulated as Zero Waste to landfill, however, none of the places in question at that time seemed to be planning an increase in incineration for example, which would reduce the waste tonnage greatly, and some appear to have ruled it out (Canberra, Kamikatusu, New Zealand, Philippines) citing negative public opinion.
Some of the Zero Waste goals have target dates attached (Kamikatsu, Japan, 2020; New Zealand, 2020; San Francisco 2020). For others, “Zero Waste” provides a notional target with some interim targets (Bath, Philippines).
Canberra’s target of no waste by 2010 is acknowledged to mean in practice 95 per cent diversion from landfill.
Those municipalities espousing zero waste will nevertheless be some of the highest recycling rate achievers, and studies appear to show recycling rates are and will be raised to between 37 per cent and 80 per cent
The experience of a Flanders, France experience was thought in 2006 to indicate that household recycling rates of 60 per cent ought to be obtainable in the UK with the right mix of instruments – although until the new UK government was elected in May 2010, it was expected that local authorities would be allowed to charge householders extra for non-recycled (black bag) waste, as way to achieve these high goals. However, the Conservative/Liberal Coalition has already announced that no such an incentive will be allowed by the new UK Government.
A common feature to many of the Zero Waste targeted schemes is rigorous source separation and collection of recyclables, but so far, in no case, does this appear to be mandatory.
In many places zero waste recycling is driven by pricing of landfill (Bath, Canberra, Flanders, New Zealand) and variable charging of householders (Flanders, San Francisco).
All case studies assume that good markets will exist from now onward for most recyclates, although some will always be awkwardly distant (China and India). So, this raises questions as to whether the goal of zero waste is sustainable, in a market sense, or whether recycling will continue to suffer from the recessionary effect on China’s need for imported secondary materials.
The notions of designing out waste, changing the nature of products and making producers responsible for the consequences of wasteful consumption are still not really on the agenda for zero waste advocates, but shouldn’t they be?
Beyond European or European-style agreements on recycling of packaging and WEEE, there seems little real appetite for imposing more biting producer responsibility. The “Cradle to Cradle” concepts of beneficial products and continual recycling of biological and non-renewable materials are being developed, but are not yet necessarily a part of the Zero Waste philosophy in many places.
The UK is well investing heavily to take a lead on waste prevention with large amounts of landfill tax money being channelled into bodies such as WRAP, Envirowise, BREW, and the Centre for Sustainable Design. Let’s hope they will soon be able to produce some truly ground-breaking ideas and initiatives to actually achieve close to what the public must think the politicians and the waste industry mean by zero waste..
Underpinning the philosophy of zero waste is an aspiration for continuous improvement that goes beyond being compliant with legislation, targets or contracts. While practically delivering zero waste is a significant challenge, the desire to do more and do it better is perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from these case studies.
Zero waste had been portrayed as utopian and undeliverable, yet getting as close to it as possible is worth striving for, and the zero waste concept is already delivering results. Let’s hope the backwash from the press and media, and the public when they realise that most of the landfills will stay open, is not too great.
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