Zero Waste Movements and their Effect on the Environment

The concept of zero waste is rather hot right now. The world’s rubbish-related problems have only become worse, in spite of our seeming efforts of fixing them. Is recycling the way to go, or is there something better you can do? Today we take a peek behind the scenes of recycling, zero waste movements, and the idea behind the industry of waste.

Zero Waste to Landfill

First of all, if you want to know more about the world’s initiatives against trash, you can watch War on Waste, ABC’s three-part series. Craig Reucassel reveals how harmful human activities are, as well as some of Australia’s worst recycling sins. But what exactly is zero waste?

Zero waste movements – whether corporate or civic green commitments – are actually campaigns that advocate “zero waste to landfill.” In other words, they don’t aim to reduce waste production to zero, but to manage all of the waste produced. Therefore, such initiatives usually rely heavily on recycling.

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Most of us have probably said at least once that waste is not waste if you put it in the recycling bin. Similarly, food waste is not food waste if the compost bin is the final destination. And the waste recovery industry thrives on a very old saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” In fact, well-sorted waste is not just usable. Companies seek it out for recycling or fuel production.

The Australian recycling industry – the focus of ABC’s mini-series – is quite capable of repurposing its collected recyclable material. Their well-oiled recycling machine led to a rapidly-developing circular economy, where recycled waste replaces raw material in production.

zero waste


What Is Waste?

However, like many other words, waste has various definitions. Most importantly, there’s a vital difference between the common and technical concept. In friendly conversations, we use waste to refer to unwanted or unusable objects or materials; something that has no value. However, in technical terms, waste is a category of a resource at a certain point in its value sequence.

For most people, this might seem like a pedantic and useless distinction. But language influences our understanding, behavior, and the perception of what is important. Albert Shamess, head of waste management in Vancouver, has recently said that, “We can’t recycle our way to zero waste.” His statement prompts us to ask a very important question.

Is waste still waste if you recycle it?

According to the standard waste hierarchy generally, there’s a clear difference between green initiatives that avoid producing waste and those that manage the created waste. Unfortunately, recycling lands squarely in the unwanted zone of waste management. Therefore, we should look at recycling as something to do with waste, not a successful solution to avoid it.

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In general, recycling is fairly simple and a standard practice in most households. If there’s a recycling bin in the kitchen – or in the office – it’s easy to avoid the rubbish bin and be mindful of your trash. The same goes for public spaces, where citizens have the option of sending their waste on the recycling path.

Recycling & Waste Hierarchy

However, recycling is not the ultimate solution to waste. According to the picture above, the waste ranking is rather harsh on recycling. Saying that waste is not waste if you recycle it only does one thing: It draws attention from the more important actions that would have a much greater impact.

NPR has recently conducted an experiment on people’s behavior regarding recycling. Their conclusions might surprise you. When a recycling bin was nearby, the participants used more paper cups to sample beverages. Other times, the volunteers only had a trash can available, which led to more people reducing the number of cups they used. The same happened with paper napkins – which most of us use indiscriminately and without a second thought.

So is recycling the best you can do? When companies and cities define zero waste commitments as “diverting from landfill”, it’s too easy for them to focus on recycling and recovery, rather than determining targets for the more difficult task of minimizing waste. While recycling is a wonderful last line of defense, we should concentrate on the more effective solution of avoiding the waste in the first place.

Know Your Priorities

Why does recycling rank so low on the waste hierarchy? The standard waste ranking favors initiatives based on their eco-friendly benefits. Recycling is – no doubt –significantly better than landfill, as it displaces raw materials in the manufacturing process. For instance, recycling aluminum is 95 percent more useful and efficient than using virgin aluminum. Similarly, recycling plastic is 85 percent more efficient, while paper 50 percent, and glass 40 percent.

But that’s not everything that must be taken into consideration. The recycling process itself still consumes plenty of energy – as well as other resources, including money. And for many materials (plastic in particular, but also paper), recycling also means a downgrading process. In other words, these materials can go only through so many cycles of processing before they degrade beyond any use. At that point, they can’t even be recovered for energy purposes. Therefore, they generally retake their initial route to the landfill.

What if we would reduce the amount of material that requires recycling? In an ideal scenario, we could also minimize the demand – the amount of products that need to be produced in the first place. If that happens, the costs of recycling would simply disappear. While recycling matters, we can do one better. We can make wiser consumer choices, in addition to smarter product design and improved resource management.

Calling a Spade a Spade

The U.S. is already on its way to become a circular economy. However, in this transition, how we characterize things is important, because it often focuses on the value of objects beyond the end of their expected lifecycle. But, it’s equally crucial to still call things as they are.

In the end, the answer to the question “Is waste still waste if you recycle it?” doesn’t matter as much. Recycling needs to be seen as what is it – the last line of defense. It’s more efficient to minimize waste than to manage it, so let’s keep our focus there.

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Green and Growing Team

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