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International Day of Zero Waste
Photo provided by UN


First International Day Of Zero Waste Asks Us To Look Within To Address Global Pollution Crisis

“The waste crisis is undermining the Earth’s ability to sustain life. Waste costs the global economy billions of dollars each year,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said.

It’s recycling pickup day here at CleanTechnica Global Headquarters. Did you ever see that commercial where the therapist advises adult children how not to become their parents? Yup, that’s us on recycling pickup day — we pause at the window and stare at the recycling bins, pacing a bit, awaiting the arrival of the city truck that will whisk our plastics and cardboard away. Then, when the bins have been emptied, we run out and refill them with the recyclables we’ve been hiding in the Clean Café closet.

It’s kinda ironic that today is the inaugural International Day of Zero Waste, which encourages everyone to prevent and minimize waste. The new celebration promotes a societal shift towards a circular economy, recognizing and responding to the worsening impacts of waste on human health, the economy, and the environment. Yet we have so much waste from the products we buy that we don’t have an adequate method to begin the process toward eventual reuse.

We should remember that, once we put all the plastic items in our recycling bins, there are 3 possibilities as to their next destinations: being recycled, incinerated, or landfilled.

Our relationship with the environment is under threat and, while waste is not the only problem, it is does form a large portion of the issue.

Ah, landfills. We have our share of items that can’t be recycled here at our CleanTechnica offices. As we seek our muses, we sometimes look out the window over a long stretch of flat land, to the highest land mass in sight. It’s a mound in the distance, a landfill, and it seems to grow a little bit in height every year.

A landfill is not a good solution for most waste types. Due to the compression of waste and the sealed containers used, the waste that goes into the landfill doesn’t decompose as we might expect. The lack of oxygen means that the waste isn’t broken down by natural means, so a landfill is the least sustainable option for waste. But what options do we have? We compost here, for sure, but it feels like a small gesture in the larger paradigm of waste.

Conceptions of waste and loss to how the environmental movement have affected the ways we think about garbage, the ways we deal with it, and the ways in which we view others’ reactions to waste. Do we feel virtuous for reusing a plastic bag? Do we disdain those who throw away aluminum cans? At what point does personal waste become public responsibility? How can we influence our public consciousness to affect policy?

Humanity generates more than 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste annually, of which 45% is mismanaged. Without urgent action, this will rise to almost 4 billion tons by 2050. Waste comes in all forms and sizes — including plastics, debris from mining and construction sites, electronics, and food. It disproportionately impacts the poor, with up to 4 billion people lacking access to controlled disposal facilities.

“The waste crisis is undermining the Earth’s ability to sustain life. Waste costs the global economy billions of dollars each year,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message on the Day. “By treating nature like a dumping ground, we are digging our own graves. It is time to reflect on the toll that waste is taking on our planet – and to find solutions to this gravest of threats.”

The International Day of Zero Waste: An Opportunity for Reflection

The International Day of Zero Waste aims to bring the myriad impacts of waste to the world’s attention and encourage global action at all levels to reduce pollution and waste.

Established through a UN General Assembly resolution that followed other resolutions on waste, including the 2 March 2022 UN Environment Assembly’s commitment to advance a global agreement to end plastic pollution, the International Day of Zero Waste is jointly facilitated by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat). The Day calls upon all stakeholders – including governments, civil society, businesses, academia, communities, women, and youth – to engage in activities that raise awareness of zero waste initiatives.

“Waste management is critical to overcoming housing challenges, how we manage our cities’ sanitation challenges and, indeed, the climate crisis,” UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif said. “It is central to improving the lives of people everywhere.”

In its resolution to establish the Day, the UN General Assembly underlined the potential of zero waste initiatives and called upon all stakeholders to engage in “activities aimed at raising awareness of national, subnational, regional and local zero-waste initiatives and their contribution to achieving sustainable development”.

Promoting zero waste initiatives can help advance all the goals and targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including Sustainable Development Goal 11 on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable and Sustainable Development Goal 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.

“We need to act now,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said. “We have the technical expertise and the drive to innovate. We have the knowledge – both scientific and indigenous knowledge – to find solutions to the waste crisis.

“The first International Day of Zero Waste is a real opportunity to build on local, regional, and national initiatives to foster environmentally sound waste management and to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals,” she added.

Türkiye, which put forward the resolution alongside 105 other countries, is among the leaders of the zero waste movement. Türkiye launched its zero waste project in 2017 under the leadership of Her Excellency Emine Erdoğan, the First Lady. On the margins of the UN General Assembly in 2022, the First Lady of Türkiye and the UN Secretary-General signed a goodwill document to extend the country’s zero waste project globally.

“The Zero Waste Project, which we launched five years ago, is an important step to take action in response to nature’s call for help,” Her Excellency Emine Erdoğan said. “Zero waste has grown over the years – person by person, city by city and region by region – to become a global movement that extends beyond the borders of our country. I sincerely believe that this date will mark the beginning of better days for the world, our common home.”

To mark the International Day of Zero Waste, businesses, governments, non-profits and more are hosting events all over the world. These include community information sessions, e-waste and food collection drives, fashion shows, photo exhibitions, and conferences.

The President of the UN General Assembly will convene a high-level meeting in New York to provide a platform to exchange the experiences and success stories of Member States in developing and implementing solid waste management solutions and technologies.

UNEP, including through its One Planet Network and UN-Habitat, will undertake campaigns and concerted outreach efforts in the build-up to observations of International Day of Zero Waste on 30 March every year to continue rallying support and action on the importance of zero waste.

UPDATE: We received the following statement from the Executive Director of UN-Habitat:

“Transformative change we are looking for starts with us. We need to change our habits and consumption patterns. When I was a mayor in Penang, Malaysia, I promoted the idea of “5Rs”– adding “re-thinking” and “refusing” to the conventional “reduce, re-use, and recycle.” I noticed that this stimulated creativity and helped to find new uses for waste materials. In Penang, schools stopped generating waste, because they started using waste materials for composting and recycling. Waste generation drastically reduced, and this saved substantial amount of money in the municipal budget and increased recycling rate from 15% to 56%. If individuals stop buying products that are not recyclable, then eventually it will push producers to re-think their approach. But of course we also need norms and regulations that promote and advance zero-waste approaches.”

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Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., 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 Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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