The following article critical of Zero Waste is reprinted from the September 1998 newsletter of the Washington State Recycling Association. Don Kneass is President of WSRA and Western Regional Director for NAPCOR, the National Association for PET Container Resources. [NAPCOR's member companies are PET resin producers -- including Amoco, Shell, DuPont, Eastman --PET bottle manufacturers, and suppliers to the PET industry.] Following Kenass' article are replies from the GreenYes Listserve posted by Stephen Suess, president of The Plactory, Santa Cruz CA; Dan Knapp, president of Urban Ore, Berkeley CA; and Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, Washington DC.


Zero Waste Ė a Washingtonianís Perspective

By Don Kneass

Zero waste, an idea originated in California by well meaning recycling activists, intends to put together, under a single concept, policies viewed as necessary for creating a sustainable future. Outside of California, however, zero waste has generated little interest. Many in the recycling community, I believe, find that the idea stands to weaken the push for sustainability, rather than strengthen it. Zero waste is potentially a harmful idea being promoted at a bad time and here are my reasons why:

  • Lacks an Implementation Plan. Zero waste, rather than being viewed as a complex process for achieving sustainability has become simply a slogan. Lost is the discussion of how itís to be achieved? Many of the policies and actions supporters say are necessary to meet zero waste are proposals that have a history of fruitless advocacy. Where is the implementation plan and just where are the capable politicians that will champion the statutes necessary to enact these policies?
  • Weakens the Attainable. Each of the zero waste agenda items has some merit; however, some are more within reach than others. Some have serious support; some have legions of powerful opposition. Throwing them all under one umbrella concept draws resources and attention away from the attainable and focuses the opposition onto the entire agenda.
  • Itís an Impossible Goal. Like world peace, the elimination of poverty, and an end to disease, zero waste is an admirable ideal. It is, however, an impossible objective. Even the businesses being touted as zero waste models produce waste. Why promote a goal that canít be achieved? Frustration and disillusionment will be the result.
  • Lacks public support. Environmentalismís arguably most popular and enduring accomplishments, energy conservation and recycling, achieved their success because they were driven by public demand. The public defined the issue and led the way. There is no public interest in, or demand for, zero waste. The letters of support to the editor or elected officials, the neighborhood advocates, the media attention to public mood, all of which bolstered recyclingís success, donít exist for zero waste.
  • Its Timing is Poor. Recycling is slipping, sliding and fading badly. Just holding on to its status quo level of support from the public and private sector will be a Herculean task. Recycling skeptics abound and the John Tierney/New York Times anti-recycling mantra is still taking its toll. Now, more than ever, recycling needs to identify a plausible near-term agenda in order to focus its energy and resources and move forward towards completing the job. It is not the right time to expand the agenda. Our hands are full.

Should the recycling community have a sustainable future as our objective? Absolutely, but it wonít come pell-mell or without a sensible, concerted effort that sets reasonable goals and attempts to achieve them cooperatively one hard step at a time.



Response by Stephen Suess

President, The Plactory, Santa Cruz CA

I shall start by confessing that we "well meaning Californian recycling activists" are not the originators of Zero Waste, and we certainly are not the only ones who are interested in this concept.

First of all, Zero Waste is a concept as old as history. Humanity has always worked hard to seek efficiency and the elimination of waste in all of its endeavors. It is only in the 20th century that we began to think of things as disposable. In fact this "disposable society" concept is scarcely more than a few decades old and already many European countries are rapidly moving towards reducing and reusing packaging and other materials as well as 100% recycling of what is left. Landfills are expected to be extinct in Europe within a few decades. Austria has already achieved a 90% reduction in waste. The capital state of Australia has signed on to the goal of "Zero Waste by 2010" because when they asked the public what kind of waste program the public wanted they were told to eliminate ALL waste! Businesses such as Xerox, Dupont, Anderson Carpets, Patagonia, and Mad River Brewing are all working hard to eliminate ALL waste, and some have achieved 80-90% reductions in the past five to ten years already. In fact any savvy business person will tell you that a perfect business is 100% efficient and thus has NO WASTE. If these are not Zero Waste goals, well then I donít know what is.

Mr. Kneass states that many in the recycling community find that Zero Waste stands to weaken the push for sustainability, and lists his reasons:

* Lacks an Implementation Plan:

Well, I must confess that I do not have the single, completely detailed and perfect implementation plan. But I do agree with Paul Hawkens notion that if you make the generation of waste expensive, it will not take long for businesses to find a multitude of ways to eliminate it. In other words given the proper incentives, the free will market do it.

I would like to ask Mr. Kneass: What is your goal? Iíve been in business for twenty-five years and have dealt with many business consultants and planners. One of the first things they all ask is: What is your GOAL! After all, if you don't know where you are going, how can you expect to get there? They want a simple, easy to understand and easy to focus on goal - one that can be broken down into a slogan! They do not want some complex convoluted legal description that can turn into anything. Remember, the slogan is a marketers best friend! Wasnít "Donít Litter - Keep America Beautiful" an important part in reducing roadside trash, or at the very least imprinting the notion that we as a nation do not condone littering?

Yes, Zero Waste is a slogan. Zero Waste is a simple yet accurate and easy to understand goal. If you publicize this goal it will cause people to stop and think before they design a product, before they develop a manufacturing process and before they buy or throw something away. It will help lead to a broad public understanding of what it means to be sustainable and that will greatly simplify the work required to grow the political will to create the economic incentives to get to Zero Waste.

* Weakens the Attainable and Itís an Impossible Goal:

Mr. Kneass says that world peace and the elimination of poverty are impossible objectives. Even if these are impossible dreams does that mean we ought to just give up or limit ourselves to goals such as a 25% reduction in wars or 35% less poverty? We do not have national debates over whether we want to reduce crime and drunk driving by 25% or 35%. Instead we all seem to agree that our goal is to fight crime and stop drunk driving. If along the way we set percentage reductions to be achieved by certain dates, these are targets on the path to an ideal that we dream about. I doubt you will find anyone in the crime or drunk driving arena who will not readily tell you how they wish we could eliminate these problems. It is truly astonishing to me that so many people in the recycling arena seem to be downright embarrassed to talk about the dream of eliminating waste.

Of course Zero Waste is not an easy goal. But remember, developing the infrastructure to create all this waste in the first place was also difficult. It was only with the investment of trillions of dollars of government incentives (in the form of subsidies) and more than a hundred years of effort that our free market economy managed to move us from a puritan waste not people to a full blown consumer, throw away society. To expect everything to change overnight, to expect new recycling based industries to become competitive and profitable from the get go, is patently absurd. That is like giving someone a 99 yard head start in a 100 yard dash. It is not easy to overcome societal inertia or the interests those businesses and institutions that might be threatened by these changes. It takes time and money to develop and implement new technologies and habits. To get to Zero Waste might not happen quickly, and we may never truly get to absolute Zero, but Zero Waste is a goal we can use to help us stay focused and moving in the right direction.

*Lacks Public Support & Its Timing is Poor:

First of all more Americans recycle than vote. By the NRCís own poll of 1997 some 44% of Americans recycle once a week. This does not sound like something that lacks for public support. By John Tierneys own admission an awful lot of us give willingly of our time and take the trouble to sort our trash and see that our recyclables get to where they can be recycled. I have seen many instances where people go to heroic levels to find recyclers who will take the stuff they have accumulated.

Secondly, much of the public thinks recycling is a solved problem, a dead issue, a done deal! We have curb-side collection, super-market redemption centers, and now many programs even take all those plastics with the chasing arrow symbols on the bottom. You can even send your old toner cartridges back. Solid Waste managers are constantly touting how much they are recycling, and even the President says that the government shall buy recycled. Since the public thinks waste reduction is all taken care of there is no need to get all worked up and apply political pressure to do more. If any of you waste reduction advocates believe that this is not a done deal, perhaps you need to think about the message you are sending to the public.

As to timing: It is certainly true that the Environmental is not the hot political potato these days. But as many things in life, politics is like an ocean where issues ebb and flow, and some come storming in on waves. From the perspective of this Californian, I can see the next set of environmental waves building out on the horizon. If you want to eliminate waste you need to paddle out just past where the waves break. From the right place, at just the right moment you will be able to catch one of those waves and ride it into a Zero Waste future. I hope that those of you who do this work because you want to help make this a better world donít give up the impossible dream and that you can see past the obfuscation and divisive tactics used by those who fear and fight change. I hope that you come out and join us.

Stephen Suess

President Zero Waste Institute

Chair 1997 Zero Waste Conf. of the CRRAís

Owner The Plactory, a plastics recycling business



Response by Dan Knapp

President Urban Ore, Inc., Berkeley CA

Don Kneass, who calls himself a "Washingtonian," declares that zero waste is "an idea originated in California by well-meaning recycling activists."

Well, itís true that a lot of things do originate here in California. For example, California was among the first states to adopt enabling legislation for the initiative, referendum, and recall. It happened in 1911, in part due to the excesses of railroad monopolies. We California recyclers have made frequent use of these legislative tools to advance an incremental zero waste agenda against entrenched monopolistic waste interests both in government and private industry.

But California activists were simply the importers of the zero waste idea. In December 1995, when I came home from my first consulting trip to Australia, I brought the first zero waste document. It was "No Waste by 2010," the Australian Capital Territoryís plan in the city of Canberra. The main document, then in draft form, was duly passed on to a small circle of influential recyclers in various parts of the USA. Thanks to the computer proficiencies of Bill Sheehan (Athens, GA) and Rick Anthony (San Diego, CA) the idea of zero waste was soon bubbling quite merrily out there on the GreenYes Listserve. Pretty soon legislators here in the States were crafting zero waste resolutions of their own. A couple of zero waste conferences were held. I remember thinking (Iím a sociologist) that this was one of the fastest cases of cultural diffusion I had ever witnessed.

Who knows how much zero waste activity is going on out there? I donít, and I donít think Don Kneass does either. I know when my company studied six recycling enterprises in Berkeley in 1993, we were told that all but the City of Berkeley (which runs the refuse transfer station) had unrecyclable residues in the 2 Ė 3% range. Thatís pretty close to zero waste right there, and itís not something we do with a program, itís just how we do business. Iíll bet thousands of reuse, recycling, and composting businesses out there could say the same thing.

I think Don Kneass should stop worrying about recycling. Itís doing fine in the marketplace against the waste companies because it renders a superior disposal service and because its customers support its existence. Reactionary attacks by hired brains like John Tierney and Bill Rathje, even in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, donít have much currency in this arena.

Heck, we recyclers have even managed to prevail despite more than a decadeís worth of mind and material pollution emanating from the plastics and packaging industries.

Speaking of which, Iím passing on a couple of long research pieces I did as a member of the Berkeley Ecology Centerís Plastics Task Force. I submit these works as evidence that Don Kneassí comments on zero waste have more to do with the waste-friendly attitudes of the plastics industry he works for than to his status as a resident of the great state of Washington.



Response by Pat Franklin

Executive Director, Container Recycling Institute, Washington DC

Steve, Thank you for your response to Don Kneass. I love your opening comment which read: "First of all, Zero Waste is a concept as old as history. Humanity has always worked hard to seek efficiency and the elimination of waste in all of its endeavors. It is only in the 20th century that we began to think of things as disposable. In fact this 'disposable society' concept is scarcely more than a few decades old and already many European countries are rapidly moving towards reducing and reusing packaging and other materials as well as 100% recycling of what is left."

Don, You called into question the idea of embracing ZERO WASTE at a time when "Recycling is slipping, sliding and fading badly." You said that, "Just holding on to its status quo level of support from the public and private sector will be a Herculean task. . . . Now, more than ever, recycling needs to identify a plausible near-term agenda in order to focus its energy and resources and move forward towards completing the job." Then you said that we need to set "reasonable goals" and attempt to "achieve them cooperatively, one hard step at a time."

My questions for Don (and NAPCOR) are: (1)What does NAPCOR -- an association that PRIMARILY represents resin producers, PET bottle manufacturers and suppliers to the PET industry -- believe is a "plausible near-term agenda"? (2) What "reasonable goals" does NAPCOR suggest we adopt for PET bottle recovery? We are now down to 25% (25.4% to be exact) down from 28% (27.8% to be exact) last year. Should we try for 33% (32.6% to be exact)? That's where we were in 1994. You weren't kidding when you said "recycling is slipping, sliding and fading badly."

And (3) what does NAPCOR propose as a "plausible near-term agenda?" The only concrete idea I have heard lately is NAPCOR's roll out of bottle-shaped recycling bins that hold a whopping 200 uncrushed 20 oz PET soda bottles. As I said in a recent letter-to-the editor of Plastics News, this so-called solution to the problem of falling PET bottle recycling rates is NO SOLUTION AT ALL.

If each of these bin is emptied once a week, the total yield would be an additional 36.4 million PET soda bottles collected, or about 2.7 million pounds. Keep in mind that last year in the U.S. we DISCARDED 977 MILLION POUNDS OF PET SODA BOTTLES. We're gonna need one heck of a lot of plastic, bottle-shaped bins to win that battle.

The plastics resin producing industry is too busy making MORE PLASTIC BOTTLES FROM VIRGIN RESIN to concern itself with RECYCLING THE ONES THAT THEY'VE ALREADY MADE. The more bottles that are recycled, the less virgin resin they sell.


If not 0% waste, what? Should we aim for a goal of 50% waste? 65% waste? PET bottles are now at 75% waste and increasing. Is that as good as we're going to get?


Pat Franklin, Executive Director
Container Recycling Institute
1911 Ft Myer Drive, Ste 900
Arlington, VA 22209
tel: 703/276-9800 fax: 276-9587
on the web at

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