Banner: Zero Waste
Zero Waste - A New Vision for the 21st Century

Last modified: March 23, 2019
[From Waste Not - The Reporter for Rational Resource Management # 463 - August 2000 (Subscription information at end)]

We suspect when most people first hear the term Zero Waste they think the whole idea is 'pie-in-the-sky' or the vision of some hippie community. However, when one learns that Zero Waste policies have been adopted by Canberra, the capital of Australia, 12 cities in New Zealand, leading corporations like Hewlett Packard, Bell Canada and Fetzer Wineries, as well as one of the most conservative counties in California, one's attitude changes.

'Zero Waste' as a term works better than '100% recycling' because the latter vision seems to imply that the community has to do everything. Zero Waste requires the need for dual responsibility. First, the community has to maximize reuse, repair, recycling and composting and secondly industry has to redesign the objects the community cannot reuse, repair, recycle or compost. And, of course, both industry and the community need to reduce wasteful practices like overpackaging and overconsumption. Germany was one of the first countries to recognize this dual responsibility with the introduction of the 'Green Point' system, which required industry to collect and recycle (80% of the content) of the packaging which was not being recycled by communities. While the plan has not been without problems, the concept was a good one, and has certainly made the German packaging industry much more conscious of its responsibilities.

As Bill Sheehan of the Grass Roots Recycling Network and avid promoter of Zero Waste says, "Zero Waste is a design principle. If we plan for eliminating waste, whether we reach 100% elimination is not the point. The point is to start planning for the elimination of waste rather than managing waste." This quote nicely summarizes the paradigm shift from 20th Century Waste Management to 21st Century Resource Management. If you asked a responsible government official in the 20th Century how waste should be handled, he or she would probably have said, "To get rid of the waste in ways which minimize threats to human health and the environment." Today, the demands of the new century (let alone the new millennium) require that we find ways to manage our discarded materials in such a way as not to deprive future generations of an equitable share in those resources. Such a requirement is the linch-pin of the concept of 'sustainability.' In fact, applied correctly the strategy for Zero Waste not only drives towards sustainability, but also Clean Production and Environmental Justice.

Zero Waste is coupled with Clean Production, because as long as discards are contaminated with toxics the tendency will be to try 'to get rid of them' rather than reuse them. Zero Waste is linked to Environmental Justice because as long as officials are looking for places to get rid of the waste they will be looking for sites for mega-landfills or giant trash incinerators. All too often the sites for these undesirable activities end up in the poorest and most disenfranchised communities. Sadly, some of the most unsuccessful battles in the United States against local incinerator proposals (e.g. York County, Pennsylvania), occurred when groups fighting the local landfill saw the incinerator as an alternative to their battle. Thus it is encouraging to note that groups fighting dumps in Ireland have formed a coalition with the groups fighting incinerators under an umbrella organization called 'Zero Waste Ireland.'

One of the gurus of Zero Waste is Dan Knapp of Urban Ore, Berkeley, California. Dan and his wife Mary Lou Deventer have been running Urban Ore for 19 years. Currently this reuse operation grosses over $1.5 million a year and most of the income is plowed into 22 well paying jobs. Dan sees the 'landfill' of the future running more like an airport than a dump. In this model the government owns and builds the infrastructure for a huge reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, and composting operation, and lets out franchises to companies to run various slices of the 'discard pie.' This is how Canberra, Australia is running its Zero Waste plan and how a new facility to serve 600,000 people in Northern Melbourne is being designed.

These kind of facilities have been given a variety of names: Integrated Discard Management Facilities; Integrated Resource Management Facilities, and even Eco-Industrial Parks. Many of the components are familiar to us in the form of Reuse and Repair Centers (eg WasteWise, Georgetown, Ontario); Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFS) and a variety of Composting operations. A new development is 'Remanufacturing' at the same site as materials recovery. A successful example of this is in Crescent City, in Del Norte County in Northern California. Here a company (Eco-Nutrients) is recovering a waste product (crab shells from the local fishing industry) and extracting chemicals for use in contact lens, surgery stitching and nutritional supplements. Other examples (illustrated in the video 'Zero Waste: Idealistic Dream or Realistic Goal?') are companies which convert wood gleaned from deconstructed buildings and wooden pallets to make flooring and furniture, and others which convert various organic waste products from agriculture, forestry and industry into soil amendments (e.g. American Soil Products, Inc.).

Clearly, there is a huge need for the kind of creativity that private enterprise can offer in Zero Waste strategies. Ironically, one of the disastrous mistakes that a number of developed and developing countries are entertaining at present is the 'privatization of the waste industry.' This model envisages handing over all collection and disposal to the waste disposal industry. Here governments will not be encouraging resource recovery but waste disposal. This kind of privatization needs to be fought tooth and nail. It represents 'waste' management in the corporate interest as opposed to the community interest.

In addition to meeting the global imperatives of the 21st Century, there are two enormous pay-offs to the municipalities who pursue the Zero Waste option: a) the generation of jobs and b) the generation of community spirit. A study performed by Ralph Kirkpatrick on the economic impacts of recycling on the North Carolina economy indicates that the recycling industry has created over 8,000 new jobs and is adding them at six times the rate of the rest of private industry. Robin Murray in his excellent book 'Wealth from Waste' references similar success stories for job creation from recycling in other US States. Elsewhere, these jobs are going up in smoke in expensive incinerators or down the leachate drain in mega-landfills.

As far as community spirit is concerned, WasteWise and other community reuse and repair centers show clearly how exciting such operations can be. There are vast numbers of parents and children who want to play their part in moving towards a more sustainable future for our planet. These reuse and repair centers offer a splendid vehicle for many positive and community building activities. With just a little seed money from governments they can also provide a tremendous platform in every community to educate the wider public on the simple habits and activities which can make the job of local government so much easier, e.g. backyard and community composting. Even more exciting is the creation of community gardens in our cities. These not only add color to grimy parts of the city ( "The earth smiles with flowers") but also represent a marvelous opportunity to use up local organic waste.

More than anything else Zero Waste is a challenge to our most positive instincts: individual responsibility, community spirit, creativity and free enterprise. It won't happen without dedicated hard work from community activists, visionary officials and small business entrepreneurs. It won't happen overnight and it won't happen everywhere at once. But it is happening in some places right now. It is important that the models and pioneer solutions get exposure. Both Waste Not and Grass Roots and Global Video will do what they can to keep our readers and viewers informed and inspired about these steps on the road to Zero Waste.

Canberra, Australia: NO WASTE BY 2010

The Waste Management Strategy for Canberra [pop. 311,000] has been developed to set the vision and future directions for waste management in the Australian Capital Territory. The strategy is the result of extensive community consultation which has identified a strong desire to achieve a waste free society by 2010. Improving current waste management practices will provide opportunities to develop new and innovative businesses with significant employment potential as well as establishing Canberra as a centre of excellence in sustainable resource management. Although ambitious, reaching no waste by 2010 is achievable with the willingness, co-operation and participation of all sectors of the Canberra community. The strategy establishes a framework for sustainable resource management and lists broad actions which are needed to achieve the aim of a waste-free society. These include: Community Commitment, Avoidance and Reduction, Resource Recovery, Residual Waste Management, and Creative Solutions.

The Vision. By 2010 it is envisaged that waste will have been eliminated by a community that:
  • has encouraged the producers of goods to take responsibility for the form in which their products are sold to ensure that waste is not generated with the initial production, during use or at the end of the product's life;
  • has created an environment for developing innovative solutions to avoid generating waste;
  • only buys what it needs. Whether they be building materials or groceries, waste is avoided by efficient buying and production practices;
  • has created cost-effective methods for recovering resources so that materials can either be re-used or reprocessed into valuable products;
  • has created industries dealing in unwanted materials;
  • has extended the opportunities for resource recovery to the Canberra region; and
  • takes pride in its achievements in eliminating waste and includes environmental education as a key element in achieving the vision.
Some excerpts:

Smart Buying. Developing Programs that will allow consumers and resource users to make well informed choices for minimizing waste in their purchasing and production decisions... Consumers are not given information on the full environmental costs of the products they buy in terms of manufacture, consumption and ultimate re-use, recycling and disposal implications. Introducing a national rating system, which provides information on the environmental characteristics of a product, including by-products, energy consumed in production and use, packaging used and the potential for re-use and recycling, will be supported.

Resource Exchange Network. A service which provides contacts for the exchange of materials, enabling a waste product from one process to be used as a base resource for another.

Resource Management. The handling of all materials as being of inherent value. The placement of all or any material in a re-use hierarchy.

Resource Recovery. The retrieval of any material with the primary intention of application in another process.

Resource Recovery Estates. Are facilities which enable materials discarded by the community to be re-used and/or recovered. Such a facility would be designed for storing, processing, recycling, value adding and selling recovered materials.

Transfer Station. A facility where wastes and recovered materials are transferred from small collection vehicles to larger transport vehicles for movement to a disposal site or other location for additional processing. Transfer Stations are generally established for situations where direct haul will be more expensive than the transfer and transport operations.

Waste free society. A waste free society is one in which no material is regarded as useless. Where all resources find another application or useful function.

Deconstruction NOT Demolition from the Institute of Local Self Reliance Website

Deconstruction. (n.) (1) The systematic disassembly of residential and commercial buildings. (2) An economic opportunity that stimulates community-based economic development through business and job creation. (3) An environmental practice that diverts waste from landfills and incinerators, reduces the dependence on virgin feedstocks, and provides a supply of reusable materials for construction and renovation projects.

In 1998, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) met with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to explain how programs like HUD's Hope VI (which provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually to demolish buildings) could use deconstruction to renovate public housing in an environmentally-sound manner, while helping HUD meet its Section 3 (community investment) obligations. At HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo's urging, ILSR implemented a pilot project to demonstrate the viability of deconstruction. ILSR worked with the Hartford (Connecticut) Housing Authority (HHA) and Manafort Brothers, Inc., a local construction and demolition (C&D) enterprise, to deconstruct six units of the Stowe Village Public Housing Complex. HHA provided $50,000 above traditional demolition costs in order to support this deconstruction training program. The returns were extraordinary. Nine worker-trainees were drawn from Hartford public housing; some had grown up in the very units they were deconstructing. Training, conducted by the Local 230 of the Laborers International Union and ILSR, was completed in six weeks, by which time the project had:
  • deconstructed 6 units (8,250 square feet) at Stowe Village
  • recovered and found markets for all recovered materials, generating $9,000 in sales
  • trained workers for thousands less than the HUD-approved training costs
  • forged alliances among the public and private sectors and national and local unions
  • established a 51% worker-owned deconstruction enterprise
  • created permanent, full-time, high-wage jobs for public housing residents
  • created home ownership opportunities for public housing residents
  • reunited families through HHA's award-winning Family Reunification Program.
In addition to the direct benefits to the city of Hartford and the residents of Stowe Village, the project proved that deconstruction can be a viable complement or alternative to demolition, creating jobs and businesses, attracting local investment, and safeguarding the environment.

Contacts: There are numerous statewide, national, and international groups, activists, practitioners, and consultants that can be found on the 'links' sections of the following 2 groups. Both also offer email newsletters.

GrassRoots Recycling Network
(Campaigns, Reports, and excellent 'links' site)
Email: Bill Sheehan

Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Inc.
2425 18th Street, NW, Washington DC 20009
Tel: 202-232-4108. Fax: 202-332-0463.
Email: Website:

The 'other' vision:
In Defense of Garbage by Judd H. Alexander. 1993. Praeger Publishers.

"To assist those cities and states that have the most urgent solid waste problems, we need a National Solid Waste Reserve... Where would these facilities be located? On government land... A National Solid Waste Reserve consisting of ten disposal sites scattered around the country would have the capacity to take a third of the municipal waste generated in the United States in the next hundred years... If we can afford to set aside seven million acres for endangered spotted owls, is it too much to ask the nation to set aside seventy thousand acres to help save endangered cities? There are several advantages to the concept of mega-landfills (or mega-energy plants) set in the middle of vast tracts of land. First, there are no neighbors - no NIMBY (p 210-211)... Of all the great challenges faced by the nation, the garbage problem is the easiest to solve. As we have seen, solid waste is not a problem of huge scale, vast resources, or great risk. We know how to manage our waste in an environmentally benign fashion, without great cost, and with existing technology. The quantity of our discards is small in scale and low in value compared to the other resources we use. Our only shortfall lies in the lack of public understanding of the scale of the waste issue, the inevitability of the need to discard, and the simplicity and safety of MSW disposal. If only our other problems could be so readily solved (p 212-213)..."

Waste Not # 463 Published 48 times a year. Annual rates: Groups & Non-Profits $50; Individuals $40; Students & Seniors $35; Consultants & For-Profits $125; Canadian $US45; Overseas $65. Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson St., Canton NY 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448. Email:

  Contact Us © Zero Waste USA ©
Archive maintained by Laughter On Water