Each year, Americans discard an average of 1,609 pounds of waste per person, or about five pounds per day. An estimated 1,200 pounds of that trash consists of organic products that could get composted instead. That’s according to the University of Southern Indiana, which also says the U.S. is the number one trash-producing nation in the world. In a single year, American garbage containers fill up with 16 billion diapers, 1.6 billion pens, 2 billion razor blades, and enough aluminum to rebuild all of America’s commercial airliners – four times over. In other words, 5% of the world’s population creates 40% of its garbage.
Where does all that refuse go? About 25-30% of it gets recycled, and the rest ends up in incinerators or landfills. This is despite the fact that recyclables form about 70% of America’s waste stream. Now that China is no longer purchasing billions of pounds of recyclables from the U.S., more garbage is piling into landfills than ever. That means while American families may laboriously sort their trash into various containers, a lot ends up in the local rubbish heap anyway.
Landfills create many environmental hazards for their neighbors and the world at large. E-waste emits toxins that leach into the soil and water supply. Water that filters through waste in landfills forms leachate, a highly toxic solution. And organic matter gives off potent greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.
What if we could do away with landfills? What if we could reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost until 100% of our garbage stream disappeared? It sounds impossible, but maybe it isn’t. Public policy makers and waste management experts are tossing around the idea. They call it “zero waste disposal.”
What is zero waste?
Zero waste’s definition varies depending upon who is expressing the idea. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines it as “The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
The Toronto Environmental Alliance says, “A zero waste future is one in which goods are shared, designed to last and be easily recycled and repurposed. It’s about building a vibrant circular economy, where unwanted materials are not disposed in a landfill or incinerator, but become the raw materials for something new.” This defines zero waste as a circular economy in which manufacturers create easily recyclable goods, knowing that when the products malfunction or break, they can reuse them as raw materials – over and over again.
For their part, the U.S. Conference of Mayors attempted to create a definition of zero waste that encouraged “shared fiscal responsibility and legislative innovations” through a hierarchy of managed materials from product redesign and reduced packaging to waste-based energy and landfills.
Regardless of the specific focus or verbiage used, zero waste disposal describes an effort to eliminate trash from the human economic and lifestyle systems
What are the elements of zero waste?
Zero waste policies can exist at any scale from the global economy to the one-person household. A single company or municipality attempting a zero waste lifestyle will adopt different strategies and identify different elements of zero waste than another actor might adopt.
In 2014, Chung Yim Edward Yiu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Bente Castro Campos of the Institute of Future Cities developed a concept they called “A Novel Planning Model for Approaching a Zero-Food and Zero-Waste Community.” Yiu and Campos imagined a 10,000-person, 40-ha (hectare) community that had no impact on energy, water, food, or waste. The two researchers concluded that “with 8 ha farmland, the community can achieve 40% self-sufficiency in vegetables, and 100% self-sufficiency in zero-(organic) waste.”
In a report for the Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production, researchers D. Van Beers and Hafiz Ahmad ur Rehman of Bergische Universität Wuppertal identified four key elements of zero waste policy using a model from DENSO, a UK-based automotive manufacturer. DENSO wanted to eliminate potassium aluminum fluoride waste, a hazardous chemical with high disposal costs. Their four priorities were water recovery and reuse, increased reuse and recycling of waste material, the repurpose of raw materials, and energy efficiency.
Cities like San Francisco, Austin, Boulder, and Seattle have actually attempted to put the zero waste concept into practice at the municipal level. More practical than Yiu and Campos’ ideas and more complex than DENSO’s laser focus, these efforts have included free zero waste recycling for businesses, home composting systems, and a trash tax. Their efforts have not been in vain; San Francisco, for instance, is diverting 80% of its waste from the landfill, more than any other U.S. city.
At an even more granular level, the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, IA has designed a zero waste dining facility. The school composts its uneaten food – all 720 pounds of it – every day. “While composting has been going on for some time,” the university acknowledge, “the move to 100% was made possible by the installation of a shed near the dining hall that enables food service staff to store the waste from dinner until it can be picked up the next morning.” This was all thanks to a grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
How do you measure zero waste?
You start by measuring waste diversion. The formula is simple: divide the amount of trash you divert from incinerators and landfills by the total amount of trash you collect. Now you know your waste diversion percentage. The closer your number is to 100%, the closer you are to zero waste. You can use this formula for a single event or for an entire nation.
Of course, the waste diversion formula only measures outcomes, not impacts. When they talk about zero waste, what public policy makers – and the general public – really want to know is: what’s the impact? Why does it matter that we hit zero waste? Was it worth the investment? Basically, who cares?
For that, we have to consider waste diversion’s impact on economics, public health, the environment, education, and general community wellbeing. That’s a tall order, but the European Union is giving it some thought. The sticking point is an old one – growth in environmentally sustainable practices generally runs concurrent with a depression in GDP and other traditional measures of economics. When the Earth’s wellbeing is weighed against a hot job market and a strong currency, the Earth usually lose. Badly. Consequently, it may be time to completely reconsider how we measure economic success, taking environmental and social issues into consideration instead of focusing only on dollars in and out.
For now, simply reducing the volume of products that arrive in a landfill is a good way to move toward a zero waste goal.
Why does zero waste matter so much?
Zero waste communities enjoy many benefits, including environmental protection, improved resource efficiency, and job creation. According to the Toronto Environmental Alliance, zero waste could dramatically reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to greenhouse gasses and climate change. It could also conserve natural resources such as timber and oil and create green jobs through a circular economy.
Zero waste is no longer the exclusive purview of environmental activists. With China’s new ban on contaminated recyclables, a greener economy is not only better for the plants and animals but for commerce as well.
Municipalities and waste management companies are using low-touch, high-impact technology to decrease their contributions to local landfills, optimize routes, and generally help support a move to a lower-waste infrastructure. Sensa Networks offers a machine-to-machine wireless communication device to measure bin fullness, eliminating unnecessary pickups and reducing both costs and environmental impacts. Sensa can automatically schedule pickups and issue purchase orders to haulers only when compactors reach a specified fullness level. Learn more about Sensa’s cost-saving green technology and what it can do for your city or waste management company.