GRRN Green Paper #1

Zero Waste:
Management Principles for the Coming Age
of Zero Waste

    Zero Waste is a new vision for a new millennium.  It is a goal, a process, a way of thinking that profoundly changes our approach to resources and production.  Not only is Zero Waste about recycling and diversion from landfills, it also restructures production and distribution systems to prevent waste from being manufactured in the first place.  What materials are still required in these redesigned, resource-efficient systems will be recycled right back into production.

  • Zero Waste requires preventing rather than managing waste.

  • Zero Waste turns discarded resources into jobs instead of trash.

  • Zero Waste supports an economy that provides for a comfortable society without robbing the future.

  • Zero Waste emulates natural systems where everything that wears out or dies becomes food or shelter, however temporarily, for something else, giving rise to a vibrant yet efficient flow of energy and resources.

    Today is a splendid time to put forward this large, generous, hopeful vision for our future.  We, the GrassRoots Recycling Network, are united in the belief that Zero Waste is both feasible and required if we are to convert to a sustainable human culture for our shared planet Earth and beyond.

    As hands-on recyclers, environmentalists, policy makers and business people, we have banded together into a virtual policy pressure group to push governments and economies to adopt zero waste as "the way things are done."


    Almost all materials we use to manufacture products start with natural resources.  Far too many of our production systems still cause negative impacts, including:  mining, forestry and agricultural practices that create ecological damage and pollution, use too much energy and cause social dislocation; manufacturing processes that require virgin rather than recycled resources; distribution systems that increase waste and pollution; and disposal systems that waste the potential for continued use in discarded materials.  Far too many of the refined products that flow through our economies end up concentrated in landfills, burned in incinerators, or wasted in other ways.

    Our worldwide manufacturing, distribution, and disposal systems have evolved with support from laws and practices over more than 150 years that encouraged the rapid conversion of natural resources into finished products.  To some, the land appeared so vast it could absorb any amount of pollution while giving up its wealth endlessly.  Today everyone knows this was an illusion.

    Even though our ancestors' dedication to industrial development has spurred tremendous production and technological achievements, continuing this approach to production life cycles cannot sustain a healthy, satisfying quality of life for the world's vastly increased population as we enter the 21st century.

    By adopting Zero Waste as our goal right now, we shift job creation to reuse, recycling, and composting industries that transform discarded materials into resources.  Many people left out of the current economy will be able to find interesting and fulfilling work in these efficient and inventive businesses.  We will need to change our laws and economic measurements to facilitate this changeover to an abundant economy that rewards creativity, efficiency, community, healthy families and environmental protection.

    Zero Waste visualizes our economy as a circular or spiral system in which every part supports and affects every other.  We seek to replace the current outdated linear economic and production system, which does not recognize the interconnectedness of impacts and the trail of wastes left behind.


    What we now call "trash" is unfortunate waste, resources rendered useless and worthless by failed handling systems.  Any disposal system that manufactures wastes from resources requires the extraction of more natural resources from the earth to create replacements.  Wastes are resources that could and should have been conserved.  Minimizing wasted materials reduces energy and water use as well as pollution.

    To understand better how the products we create help or harm the environment we depend on, we need to ask:

  • Is the product necessary?
  • Can it be made from materials that minimize negative environmental effects?
  • Can it be designed to reduce the materials required and the toxics produced?
  • Can it be safely shipped with minimal packaging?
  • Can it be reused, recycled, or composted easily when the user finishes with it?

    We must tell our industrial process engineers and developers to intensify their efforts toward designing production systems that do not pollute or release toxics into the environment.  These professionals are already creating some closed loop manufacturing facilities that neutralize toxics; treat discarded materials, energy, and water as feedstocks for the next production stage; and clean up and reuse materials in benign ways.

    We must shift our attention from quantity to quality by recognizing all the social and environmental impacts of a product's life cycle.  Instead of rewarding companies for producing single-use, unrecyclable products and packaging, we should encourage companies to produce more durable products that are more easily repairable, lease some products with full service guarantees instead of selling them outright, and create more modular designs so that complex products can be more easily upgraded.  We should also require them to include in their pricing the full cost of the product's production, including environmental damage, lost habitat, actual (not subsidized) costs of resource extraction, and proper disposal through reuse, recycling, and composting.

    We should ensure that all people have access to the basic material goods they need for a healthy, creative, and satisfying life, instead of valuing people based on their wealth, overconsumption, and opulence.  Overconsumption is a form of wasting, not a thing to be envied.

    Legal structures should be changed by legislatures or by citizen initiative to reward conservation, quality, and service.  All grants and subsidies to the solid waste landfill and incinerator industries should be eliminated, along with all barriers to materials recovery competition such as flow control and exclusive franchises to handle all "wastes."

    Accounting practices and economic indicators (such as the GDP) should focus on developing a balance sheet that internalizes the true benefits and costs of all products and services, including all environmental and societal benefits and costs.  This more accurate and complete reckoning should recognize essential but unpaid activities such as family care and volunteer service.  The goal should be to ferret out and eliminate all incentives to waste and societal breakdown and to quantify all currently ignored "externalities" and bring them into the pricing structure.

    Changes along these lines are already underway in the USA and around the world.2  By uniting behind the banner of Zero Waste, we seek to make these ideas as customary and comfortable as the old outmoded millennial idea that everyone had an unlimited license to waste.


    We need to develop and implement a new national materials policy that encourages conservation and resource recovery and attacks unnecessary resource extraction and pollution.  We need to shift taxation from "goods" such as labor and capital to "bads" such as pollution and waste.

    We should eliminate tax credits for mining, extraction, and harvesting natural resources; exemptions from hazardous waste regulations for mining wastes; and energy subsidies that protect wasteful practices.  The playing field should be leveled between the recovered resource industries and the natural resource industries.  Granting free federal road-building to benefit timber companies is one example of a subsidy that should be eliminated.  Publicly-owned timber-harvesting and mining rights should be sold at prices that reflect their actual scarcity and value, significantly higher than the current firesale prices.

    We should promote and provide economic incentives for product designs that encourage repair, resale, reuse, durability and recyclability.

    Labeling standards should be revised to provide information on recycled and postconsumer content even if it is zero, as well as realistic instructions on how to dispose of products through reuse, recycling, and composting.  Something similar to the "Toxics Release Inventory" should be developed to report the amounts and types of materials being used, reused, recycled, composted, and wasted so the public can learn about and judge the true state of material efficiency for our economies.

    Mandates requiring minimum recycled content have worked and should be protected from reactionary attempts to eliminate them.  Mandates and product disposal charges should be extended to more product lines.  Manufacturers should be encouraged to shift from selling products outright to leasing them under contracts that include long-term maintenance services and provisions for returning them to be rendered into useful parts for remanufacturing.

    Products and materials that are unrecyclable should be banned unless their manufacturers can present acceptable alternative benefits such as longevity, durability, or long-term repairability.  Banning can be accomplished through legislation, court action, or voluntary cutbacks.

    Materials recovery should be integrated into the design of industrial parks.  Policies should be developed that encourage industrial park management to recruit tenants that have complementary production processes such that discards from one facility can be taken in as feedstocks for other facilities.  We support the growing movement toward establishing eco-industrial parks, and we want to link up with the best practitioners in the field of industrial ecology.

    We should take full advantage of the fact that materials recovery industries are relatively labor-intensive and skill-intensive rather than capital-intensive3.  We should work with economic development professionals in governments to make sure they understand the way resource recovery integrates marginalized social groups into mainstream economic life.

    We should continue educating the public about the damages caused by overconsumption and waste.  Consumers must understand that they are paying far more than they have to because of previous bad disposal practices that led directly to environmental cleanup costs and health maintenance costs for people and properties damaged by pollution.



    For those goods that are already part of the built environment we share, we should provide consciously for ecological disposal of all their constituent elements.  Here are some starting principles to follow during the transition times.

    The materials recovery industry today is overwhelmingly a small business phenomenon4.  Entrepreneurs are working on combinations of technology and human organization that convert nearly everything we currently waste into products valuable enough to be traded.  We should build our Zero Waste movement upon this existing foundation.

    Everyone needs to agree on a set of master categories that describe everything now "thrown away" in recoverable terms, with nothing left out and nothing left over.  Master discard categories are very large aggregations of material: metals, glass, paper, plant debris, and such.  The list of master categories should be short enough to be easily committed to memory.  It should be free of conceptual wastebaskets such as "other organics" or "inerts".  It should be used as a common protocol for all discard characterization studies, so that results can be comparable across all jurisdictions.  For now, we think there are about a dozen of these master categories.5

    The point of having a master discard category set is to use it in building facilities that handle each and every discard category as a resource, not a waste.  Designs for these facilities can be quite varied.  There are many different ways to recover the same resource.  Each master category can be subdivided into an infinite number of subcategories matching different processes and end-uses.  Fitting varied resource streams to sites and to collections of available equipment and labor is a major part of the Zero Waste challenge.

    Rather than relying on natural resources, channels for manufacturing and distribution should flow through these comprehensive recovery facilities, variously called resource recovery parks, discard malls, or eco-industrial parks.6  (This reverses the usual flow of materials, with recovered materials being used at the beginning of the process rather than being left over at the end.)  Most of our production elements should come from refined resources generated by these recovery processes.

    Public and private development of materials recovery facilities should be built around Zero Waste concepts.  Such facilities would include many enterprises co-existing in a cluster much like an airport or shopping mall, with managed competition and cooperation.  Such facilities should include businesses that reuse and repair.

    Manufacturers should be asked and, if necessary, required to be more responsible for the collection and recovery of the "disposable" products they create.  These products must be recoverable by reuse, recycling, and composting, whichever is their highest and best use.  Disposal of all discards should be handled with the same care and respect as disposal of an estate or disposal of business assets.

    All discarded materials have resource potential.

    We must replace solid waste management with resource management.  Collection containers that mix all discarded material together, then mix, pulverize and crush the materials to pack them into the smallest space possible, should be used for separated materials only.  Variable rate pricing for garbage collection should be the rule, with citizens who recycle most paying least for garbage disposal.  Collectors should be free to charge what the market will bear for the service of collecting low-value but recyclable discard streams.

    Economic barriers should be torn down that protect the solid waste landfill and incinerator industries from competition with the materials recovery industries.  Flow control for recyclables and garbage should be eliminated.

    We must drive home the point that burying and burning cancels any potential for repeated recovery of the accumulated wealth that is being wasted.  Allow the disposal price structure to adjust to the condition of free competition for the discard supply, mitigated by cooperation toward realizing the most value from all the resources conserved.  Reuse, recycling, and composting enterprises all should have access to two income streams: one from suppliers and one from buyers.  Recovery businesses must be allowed to compete on a level playing field with wasting industries.  Eliminating subsidies will make it clear that wasting is an economic, as well as environmental, disaster.

    Materials too mixed and contaminated to be reused, recycled, or composted should continue to be subject to all existing solid waste laws protecting public health and safety.  Recyclable materials that do not endanger public health and safety should not be subject to regulation as "solid waste."  Recovery businesses that deal in clean, separated materials should be subject to normal business regulations regarding licensing, zoning, and public health.

    The full costs of landfilling and incineration, including all hidden tax subsidies and governmental supports, decommissioning, and long-term security or cleanup, must be reflected in current tipping fees.  We should sort out and reform the current contradictory and confusing local, state, and federal laws that favor wasting by landfilling and incineration and act as barriers to competition for the discard supply.  The goal of public sanitation is best served by total materials recovery:  Zero Waste.


    The materials recovery industry is growing rapidly all over the world.  We, the GrassRoots Recycling Network, are working to accelerate this trend by adopting, publicizing, and promoting the goal of Zero Waste.  Zero Waste is a metaphor powerful enough to propel humankind into and through the new millennium now just three years away.  The time for temporizing and half-measures is over.  We want Zero Waste in our lifetimes, and we will work together to create it!


1. This draft was co-written by Susan Kinsella of Kinsella and Associates and Daniel Knapp of Urban Ore, Inc.  Both live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA.  It includes concepts from Gary Liss's National Recycling Coalition speech, the draft California Resource Recovery Association's "Agenda for the Next Millennium" (Tedd Ward, principal author), Redefining Progress, Bill Sheehan, and comments from a number of GrassRoots Recycling Network GREENYES listserve participants on the first draft (including Rodger Clarke, Roger Diedrich, Richard Kashmanian, Larry Martin, John Reindl, David Reynolds, Rhys Roth, Jeffrey Smedberg, Dave Wade, and others).   [RETURN]

2. No Waste by 2010, the waste management strategy for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), was released by the ACT Department of Urban Services in December, 1996.  This 23-page, elegantly printed booklet can be ordered from ACT Waste, PO Box 788, Civic Square ACT 2608, Australia.  It can also be viewed on the web at: .  Minister for Urban Services Tony De Domenico says in a message to the readers that "We are the first Government anywhere to embrace such a bold target - of becoming a waste free society."  The ACT is analogous to our Washington District of Columbia - a land area that is home to Canberra, the Capitol City of the Australian nation.   [RETURN]

3. Compared, for example, to manufacturing computers or handling discards as solid wastes.   [RETURN]

4. The North Carolina Recycling Business Study examined the materials recovery industry in North Carolina and found over 600 growing businesses with cash flows averaging $1 million each.  The overwhelming majority were private for-profit corporations.  Extrapolating from these figures to the entire United States, there may be as many as 20,000 independent recovery businesses operating today.   [RETURN]

5. A set of twelve master categories that satisfies these criteria was developed and tested in Berkeley, California in 1988-89.  Since then, versions of this category set have been adopted by at least two local governments in California.  Perhaps more important, private-sector consultants are testing applications of the twelve-category concept in many locations within the USA and Australia.  The twelve master discard categories are:  reusable goods, paper, metal, glass, polymers, putrescibles, ceramics, soils, plant debris, textiles, wood, and chemicals.   [RETURN]

6. Other names used in commerce include integrated resource recovery facilities (West Virginia); serial materials recovery facilities (California); discard management centers (California); resource recovery estates (Canberra, Australia).  It is our understanding that these names are generic and as such cannot be trademarked; they are part of the public property already created by the modern recycling movement.   [RETURN]

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