Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature. The definition adopted by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) is:
Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
“Trash Day” in Your Neighborhood
One way to think about this concept is to imagine “trash day” in your neighborhood. Depending on where you live, you will either see just trash cans out on the sidewalk, trash and recycling cans, or maybe (if you are lucky) you will see trash, recycling, and compost bins.
Communities that do not have any recycling or composting programs available to their businesses and residents are the opposite of zero waste because there is no place to put waste other than in the trash. Communities that offer recycling are throwing away less, but how much less depends on what is accepted for recycling and what is actually getting recycled. Communities that collect compost or organics from their businesses and residents have the best chance at getting closer to the aspirational goal of “zero waste”.
Another important piece of the equation is reuse. The more we reuse, the less we have to discard, regardless of which bin we put it in. There are so many ways to reuse – reusable shopping bags, reusable coffee mugs, reusable water bottles – the list goes on and on. One of the best things about reuse is that you don’t have to worry about whether what you’re using is recyclable or compostable once you are done using it – a question that is not always easy to answer!
The concept of “waste diversion” – how much waste gets “diverted” from landfills – is something that can be easily expressed mathematically with a term called “diversion rate”. The diversion rate of a household or a business can be expressed in the following way:
So, if you have 5 pounds of recycling, 4 pounds of compost, and 1 pound of landfill waste, you have a diversion rate of .9, or as it is commonly expressed, a 90% diversion rate. Entities that are able to achieve diversion rates of 90% or higher frequently refer to themselves as “zero waste”.
As you can tell by the diversion rate equation, recycling and composting are key elements to achieving high diversion rates. While many communities in North America have some kind of recycling program, relatively few have access to the commercial composting facilities required to handle residential and commercial organic waste.
The US EPA has kept data on the generation and disposition of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States for more than 30 years. Their most recent report showed data from 2015 and a national diversion rate of below 35%. That means as a country we only recycled and composted 35% of our total waste in 2015 – not exactly “zero waste”!