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Banner: Zero Waste

Zeroing In On
Zero Waste


By Bill Sheehan and Daniel Knapp
December, 2000
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The 'waste problem' is in reality a resource problem. We see 'waste management' as the failure of 'resource management.' The first step in changing from a waste management mindset to a waste elimination (zero waste') mindset is to see used resources as a supply of discards (an economic asset), rather than as a 'waste stream' (a liability). Waste is created when we mix resources (recyclables) together, as in the modern garbage packer truck -- the quintessential garbage manufacturing machine.

Government's justification for involvement in waste management is historically based on waste being a sanitation issue. If producers reduce or eliminate waste through product and packaging redesign, and if communities develop the means to deliver clean, separated used resources to reuse, recycling and composting entrepreneurs, the 'sanitation liability' disappears and discarded things (formerly 'waste') become economic opportunities. We can envision a market-driven system that competes for the entire supply of discards. Governments will be needed not so much as market participants, but to change the rules so that resource conserving businesses out-compete resource wasting businesses every time.

The key to making progress towards the zero waste vision -- especially in this country at this time -- is reasserting the principle that corporations share responsibility for wasting and recycling. Taxpayers and local governments have little say in the production of things that become waste. Without producer responsibility for waste there is inadequate incentive to internalize costs and eliminate waste. We need to ask business and industry to redesign products for Zero Waste and to develop reverse distribution systems to take products back into production, rather than dumping the problem on community incinerators and landfills. An emerging movement within industry is promoting the idea that waste equals inefficiency. But if asking is not effective, we must change rules and laws to require reward resource conserving behavior and penalize resource wasting behavior. The goal should be to change the rules so that reuse and recycling can better realize their natural advantages over wasting.

Achieving zero waste means phasing out landfills and incinerators. Recyclers know that virtually the entire discard supply can be reused, recycled or composted -- if its components are separated. The most successful recyclers create systems and incentives to keep materials separated as much as possible. This level of control and specialization makes it easier to keep toxic substances separate from non-toxic materials. Many recyclers say that items that cannot be safely recycled at any reasonable cost can and should be banned.


Achieving Zero Waste is feasible, and perhaps necessary for our long-term survival. Zero Waste will be possible when:

1. The public starts thinking of discards as resources. Start thinking of the stuff we throw away as resources - and watch jobs develop in the local economy. Call these resources the discard supply (an economic asset), not the waste stream (a liability). Waste is created when we mix resources (recyclables) together, as in the modern garbage packer truck -- the quintessential garbage manufacturing machine.

2. Corporations share responsibility for waste and recycling. Garbage disposal is an unfunded mandate because taxpayers and local governments accept responsibility for managing waste but have little say in the production of things that become waste. Much waste will cease to exist when corporations take responsibility for their products. We need to ask business and industry to redesign products for Zero Waste and to develop reverse distribution systems to take products back into production, rather than dumping the problem on community incinerators and landfills. An emerging movement within industry is promoting the idea that waste equals inefficiency. But if asking is not effective, we must change rules and laws to require such behavior. The goal should be to change the rules so that reuse and recycling can better realize its natural advantages over wasting.

3. Local governments support comprehensive alternatives to landfills, incinerators and other resource destruction technologies. Achieving zero waste means phasing out landfills and incinerators. Recyclers know that virtually the entire discard supply can be reused, recycled or composted. The most successful recyclers create systems and incentives to keep materials separated as much as possible. This level of control and specialization makes it easier to keep toxic substances separate from non-toxic materials. Many recyclers say that items that cannot be safely recycled at any reasonable cost can and should be banned.

Zero waste/total recycling facilities that can replace landfills have been called discard malls because they are like shopping malls in reverse. Most elements needed for total resource recovery already exist in communities. The key is having the will to design and build a discard management infrastructure that permits specialized entrepreneurs to compete for the entire discard supply. What is needed is the ability to tap both generators and buyers for financial support. Recyclers must be free to charge service fees as well as sell product.

The zero waste vision and shift in thinking has profound implications for the appropriate role of government - federal, state and local. Government's role in waste management is historically based on seeing waste as a sanitation issue. If producers reduce or eliminate waste through product and packaging redesign, and if communities develop the means to deliver clean, separated used resources to reuse, recycle and composting entrepreneurs, the sanitation liability becomes an economic opportunity. We can envision a market-driven system that competes for the entire supply of discards. Governments will be needed not so much as a market participants, but to change the rules so that resource conservation endeavors are allowed to out-compete resource wasting.
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Bill Sheehan, Ph.D., is executive director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network in Athens, Georgia USA. Daniel Knapp, Ph.D. is president of Urban Ore, Inc. in Berkeley, California USA.



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