The Zero Waste Movement Is Finding A Resurgence

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Paper towels, single-use napkins, and plastic? Not in a zero waste home. Treating waste as a resource and instilling greater personal responsibility for waste minimization are social goods that focus on waste prevention, re-use, and the comprehensive use of resources.

The more that waste responsibility gets individualized, the more that the market initiates or responds to changes in consumption patterns. The result is a widening variety of products such as metal straws, re-usable coffee cups, and glass jars to facilitate a consumer’s transition to a zero waste lifestyle.

But zero waste goals don’t stop with the consumer. Businesses — small and large — are slowly coming to terms with their own disposal practices, so that they must now consider how resources are extracted and discarded at any point along the supply chain.

zero waste
Image by Onslow County Government, via NASA (public domain).

The zero waste movement is a plan where individuals and companies try to eliminate their trash output completely. Unrealistic in today’s disposable society? Maybe. But, by reevaluating the way they perceive the concept of trash, role models around the world are demonstrating that we do have the ability to reduce the harmful effects of landfills — those leading producers of methane, soil contaminants, and harmful greenhouse gasses.

“You know it’s a movement when you don’t know everything that’s going on,” Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing waste, told the Washington Post. Liss described the growing interest in low-waste living as a sea change in the relationship between people and things.

Reducing Waste With Class & Aplomb

“We were generating about one or two tall kitchen trash bags full of garbage per week,” said Justin Marino, co-owner of Mason & Greens in the Washington, DC area. “We would take it out to the curb and, you know, out of sight, out of mind, right? You don’t think about it. But then when you start thinking about it, that’s when things start changing.”

Mason & Greens is a boutique grocer which offers package-free shampoo bars and produce, organic produce, and drip-irrigated olive oil. Nuts, seeds, and other bulk grocery items are for sale, many in gravity-weighted containers, and reusable bags, jars, and glass travel mugs are popular. Pricing products this way reduces waste by allowing customers to purchase only what they need and in reusable containers, according to Marino.

Other companies are starting circular delivery services where groceries and goods are packaged in reusable containers that are returned empty.

Last year, recycling/upcycling firm TerraCycle launched Loop, a shopping platform for zero-waste-packaging products. Together, the eco-commerce provider and the brands have learned that there is indeed a market of consumers who will buy Crest mouthwash, Tide laundry detergent, and myriad other products from Loop’s online store — then return their empty packages to be cleaned, refilled, and reused.

Plastics Is A Really Big Problem

The original emphasis of the zero waste movement was focused on reducing consumption, reusing materials, and recycling residual waste, but it has more recently broadened to include environmental impacts of trash, particularly plastic pollution.

People in the US throw away about 5 pounds of trash per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12% of which is plastics. Indeed, scientists estimate that up to 91% of plastic is never recycled, leaving the rest to simmer in incinerators, choke landfills, or slowly disintegrate into microplastics in the oceans.

Scientists have even found microplastics in air, water, and food. “If we fail to act, by 2050, there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish,” said Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Substantial reductions in plastic-waste generation can be made in the coming decades with immediate, concerted, and vigorous action, but, even in the best case scenario, research reported in the journal Science indicates that huge quantities of plastic will still accumulate in the environment.

It doesn’t help that many businesses, including those within the chemical industry, are in denial. Diverting the need to take responsibility for plastics pollution, Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, asserts, “Society has a plastic waste problem, not a plastic problem.”

What Do We Know About Minimal Zero Waste Trends?

Conservation of natural resources, reduction of waste, and minimization of energy consumption is now an essential focus of green supply chain management. Waste360 explains that, by making the best choices with our natural resources — from extraction to production to consumption to disposal, business dedication to zero waste is a constant evaluation process about material choices and a strong commitment to eliminating waste, not just treating it.

The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) argues that the true aim of zero waste is not to just keep waste out of landfills, but, rather, to “redesign our entire cycle of resource extraction, consumption, and discard management so no resources are wasted at any point along the way.”

The production targets of zero waste are achieved by structuring and coordinating 3 layers of supply chains: primary supply chain, secondary supply chain, and reverse supply chain. Several research projects over the last couple of years outline protocols that are helping to rethink and reduce waste.

  • Emerging case studies from within industry, community and city contexts, demonstrate that zero waste approaches are framed in a continuum of learning and evolution and can be successful, scientific, measurable, a good economic investment, socially and culturally beneficial and democratically popular.
  • Authorities convinced households to adopt innovative waste management practices using gamification—the application of game principles to nongaming contexts.
  • Internet of things is able to integrate waste stakeholders onto a single network.
  • Municipal waste production is higher when urban waste services are managed by privately owned companies, as well as when the average taxable income of individuals per capita is lower.
  • As an example of mass production, incorporation of suitable waste management strategies in natural indigo dye production could help to achieve a zero waste sustainable process.
  • A volume-based waste fee incorporated into municipal solid waste collection services can lead to a zero waste approach by adapting resource recovery initiatives.
  • The zero waste movement must also acknowledge the role that production and consumption plays in discounting, and often aggravating, class dynamics and inequality.

Cleaning Up The Transportation Supply Chain

The 2020 State of the Reusable Packaging Industry Report is a comprehensive analysis of the global reusable transport packaging (RTP) market. The Report determined that many factors are prompting change. Models incorporate reusable transport packaging, including government regulations, public concern for the environment, automation for track and trace, and labor availability:

  • Users of reusable packaging: retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, processors, growers, distribution and logistics providers, and government agencies
  • Manufacturers and poolers of reusable packaging: pallets, containers, crates, totes, IBCs, drums, tanks, dunnage, racks, carts, dollies, and cargo protection
  • Suppliers / service providers to reusable packaging systems: washing & sanitizing equipment and services, sort and return services, asset repair, technology equipment and services, raw materials, engineering & design, and transportation & logistics

Tesla Noted At National Zero Waste Conference

The theory of zero waste reconceptualizes waste as a resource which must be conserved, used efficiently, and cycled back into the economic system.

Zero Waste Conference
Image used with permission of Zero Waste Conference

The National Zero Waste Virtual Conference held a 3-day educational and networking event earlier this month, organized by the National Recycling Coalition. Some of the workshop titles included Zero Waste Certification, Best Practices in Contracting, Recycling Market Development and Infrastructure, Recycling Jobs, Social Equity & Workers Dignity, Dual vs. Single Stream, and Zero Waste Hierarchy of Highest and Best Uses. Speakers included Dave Bennink, RE-USE Consulting and Building Deconstruction Institute; Martin Bourque, Berkeley Ecology Center; and, Kourtnii Brown, Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Stephanie Barger, director of market transformation and development for the TRUE Zero Waste certification program, reported her organization had certified 186 facilities across 14 countries to date. To be eligible, facilities must reach an average 90% diversion rate in multiple categories.

Major companies that hit their goals include Toyota, Tesla, Microsoft, and HP. The event featured presentations from California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Strauss Family Creamery about how their own steps toward these goals often saved money along the way.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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