Ten Steps to

Zero Waste Communities

Push for more zero waste institutions!

Waste reduction at the individual level, while essential for changing the culture around waste, will never be enough to divert us from our path of rampant overproduction and consumption. Luckily, more and more forward-thinking communities are seeking clean and sustainable ways to manage their excess. Read on for a glimpse at the ten-step strategy established by such zero-waste scholars and changemakers as Paul Connett and GAIA (the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives).

1. Source separation

Waste is made by mixing discarded materials. It is therefore not made in the first place by keeping discarded materials separated into a few simple categories. Resource recovery parks and drop-off recycling centers can play big roles in a community aiming for zero waste. The more categories supported, the more citizens can recycle, thus avoiding wasting materials.

2. Door-to-door collection

Door-to-door collection in towns pursuing zero waste goals typically involve three or four color-coded containers or bags. Collection rates vary, as does the degree of curbside waste separation. Communities at the leading edge of door-to-door collection have enabled citizens to recycle over 80% of their discards, and some smaller communities have achieved over 90%.

3. Composting

Composting organics is equally, if not more, important than recycling. Food scraps wreak havoc when landfilled, generating greenhouse gases and leachate. Properly composted, however, they become a valuable resource for fighting soil erosion and replenishing nutrients for agricultural production. Farmers do not want to fertilize their crops with low-grade product, so the key to a municipal composting program's success lies in the ability of cities to organize citizens into separating organics from non-organics or other contaminating materials. This makes education campaigns vital to normalizing composting in prospective zero waste communities.

4. Recycling

In larger communities, recyclables are destined to go to material recovery facilities, whose function is to separate the paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic in preparation of meeting specifications for future manufacturers. Purchasers require quality, quantity and regularity to make using recycled materials worthwhile. Sadly, many large cities in developed nations ship their recyclables out to developing nations, forgoing the opportunity to support local industries.

5. Reuse, repair, and deconstruction

Reuse and repair centers can be successful as both for- and not-for-profit entities. They might receive anything from appliances, furniture, and other items obtained from individuals to materials and items obtained from companies than specialize in the deconstruction (as opposed to demolition) of old buildings. Timber, bricks, doors, windows, and other constituent parts can all be given a second life when systems are in place to reclaim and redistribute them.

Smaller-scale reuse centers such as Concordia University's Center for Creative Reuse provide free materials to lower-income brackets like artists or students, opening up new realms of possibility for creatives constrained by budgetary concerns — all while reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill.

6. Reduction initiatives

The separation of clean organics, marketable recyclables, and reusable objects takes us closer to a sustainable future — but the residuals do not. They are the failures of either poor manufacturing design or unwise purchasing habits. Many unnecessary items, especially packaging, have entered our modern lives. As these items pile up in landfills, more and more governments and private enterprises are taking steps to reduce their use and production. Bans, taxes, and economic incentives provide avenues for policymakers to disincentivize undesirable excess, while a combination of dispensing systems and reusable containers in supermarkets provide one example of how companies can circumvent any apparent need for throwaway packaging.

7. Economic incentives

As mentioned above, one powerful way to reduce the residual fraction of discarded materials is through economic incentives such as "pay-as-you-throw" systems. The idea is to encourage citizens to maximize diversion possibilities by penalizing the production of residuals (such as packaging). Typically, recyclables and compostables are picked up for free or at a flat rate (sometimes absorbed in local taxes), but an extra charge is applied to the residuals. Thus: the more you make, the more you pay. Such initiatives are not always popular with the public. "Save as you throw" systems have been proposed as an alternative, whereby the city council determines an acceptable amount of residuals for a particular family size, and anyone who puts out less than this receives a rebate on their local tax bill.

8. Residual separation and research facilities

How the residual fraction is handled is the key difference between waste disposal (landfills/incinerators) and the zero waste strategy. The former attempts to make residuals disappear; the latter sets out to make them very visible. Residuals must be visible if we are to move towards a sustainable society. Residual separation and research facilities create space for us to study and correct our mistakes. The research conducted in these facilities can then be applied to future mandates for better industrial design, until we are no longer creating products that fall into the useless 'residual' category.

9. Better industrial design

For us to reach zero waste, three important developments must be adopted by industry: design for sustainability, clean production, and extended producer responsibility (EPR). Design for sustainability refers to the incorporation of ethics into industry, such as the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit). Packaging must be designed for reuse and products must be made for a prolonged life, easy to disassemble and repair (no more planned obsolescence). Clean production refers to the elimination of toxic elements and compounds in manufacturing. Finally, EPR refers to the implementation of new laws tying producers to end-of-life for their products so that the onus does not fall on consumers or governments to dispose of constituent parts.

10. Interim landfills

Traditionally, the approach to solving problems posed by landfills has been to try to control what comes out of them (leachate, methane emissions) through technological advancements like more sophisticated lining. However, as the US Environmental Protection Agency has made clear, all landfills eventually spring leaks. If we cannot control what comes out of a landfill, we must control what goes in. Residual separation and zero waste research centers allow us to see our failings, and interim landfills provide us with a way of handling what we can't currently reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, or redesign out of the production system. The two go hand-in-hand until we eventually reach the point where items filtered through the research centers and into the landfill have been phased out of production completely.

Zero waste is a choice away

In fact, rather than viewing zero waste as an idealistic dream, we should remember that zero waste is the natural state of the environment, where all matter fills a niche at every point in its lifecycle. Zero waste is simply a matter of will.

To learn more about what you can do at the individual level, follow the link below.