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What Is Zero Waste? – A Guide to Resource Recovery and Conservation

by | May 25, 2022 | Environment, Waste Management

What Is Zero Waste?

In simple terms, Zero Waste means conserving resources. It means responsibly producing, consuming, reusing, and recovering products, materials, and packaging without degrading land, air, and water. It also means using products and disposing of them in a way that does not threaten the environment or human health.

Zero waste encourages a more circular approach to our ways of consumption and disposal of resources. Zero waste aims to push economies, industries, and businesses towards sending no waste to incinerators and landfills.

 

Zero waste extends much further than recycling and responsible waste management systems. Zero waste means examining the entire lifecycle of a product or material. It highlights inefficiencies in the product and its unsustainable production and consumption practices. It refers to keeping waste out of landfills and encouraging our economy to generate less waste in terms of production and consumption.

What Is Zero Waste? - A Guide to Resource Recovery and Conservation

If you’re wondering whether a Zero waste lifestyle is realistic, yes, it is. Zero waste is not just an end goal. It is a set of principles that strive to eliminate waste at all stages and close the loop. Its aim is to ensure the efficient use of resources from extraction to production to consumption, generating no waste at any stage. This means keeping resources in the loop for as long as possible and returning them to the Earth with no environmental impact.

The Principles of Zero Waste

The three principles of Zero waste target different sections of society. They are:

1. Producer Responsibility

2. Political Responsibility

3. Community Responsibility

The people at the front end, the producers, must be responsible for sustainable product manufacturing. The community at the back end is responsible for consuming and disposing of those products. Political responsibility bridges the gap between communities and producers. They enforce laws that promote Zero waste principles, taking care of human health and the environment.

A Zero Waste Economy:

  • Designs closed-loop systems
  • Doesn’t export harmful waste
  • Engages the community and promotes positive change
  • Conserves energy
  • Ensures processes like manufacturing and recycling happen close to the source
  • Supports local economies
  • Minimises toxic and harmful discharges to air, land, and water
  • Develops resilient and flexible systems

Zero waste practices prevent waste at the start of the chain during the production and manufacturing process. This train of thought is also known as ‘cradle-to-cradle’ thinking. A cradle-to-cradle model keeps resources in a circular loop until we cannot use them any further and return them back to the Earth. These closed loops promote sustainability and ensure zero waste in society through reduction, reuse, and recycling.

Organic farming and composting are excellent examples of cradle-to-cradle thinking. This is a highly efficient process. In organic farming, farmers grow crops without using harmful chemical fertilisers and/or pesticides. Later, any food waste from consuming this organic food is composted and used to grow more food. Composting closes the loop.

Why Is Recycling Not the Final Solution?

Let us make an important distinction between zero waste and recycling here. Zero waste practices start right at the start of the chain, at the extraction of resources and production of products from those resources. Zero waste means that we generate no waste during extraction and production. Recycling, however, does not include these essential practices. Recycling just takes final, used products and makes new products from them. Recycling does not focus on the need to minimise waste during the production and manufacture of products.

Recycling is not an ideal solution to our waste problem. While it is part of the solution, simply recycling will not and cannot magically clear out our landfills. There’s a reason recycling is the last resort in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” However, this information should not prevent you from recycling. Yes, recycle. But first, reduce the amount of material and products you consume and demand that waste be reduced while producers manufacture those products.

Why We Desperately Need To Go Zero Waste Today

Our current production systems are not a closed loop. They’re a one-way process: from Earth to dumping yards. Here’s a gist of the way our production systems function:

1. Extraction of natural resources like petroleum, metals, trees, etc.

2. Manufacturing them into products for our convenience and polluting the environment in the process.

3. Shipping them over long distances to people all over the world.

4. Dumping them in a landfill or incinerating them. Both these processes destroy their value as resources.

5. Heading back to extract more natural resources to make more products when we want more of them.

This system of manufacturing products is broken. Picture this; there are currently more than 7 billion people on the planet. Our population still continues to grow. We all depend on a very limited number of natural resources for our survival. The stock of these resources is reducing or getting more polluted every day. If everyone lived the life of an average US citizen, we would need five planets to supply our resources. The way we produce, consume, and dispose of products emits enormous quantities of greenhouse gases. The presence of greenhouse gases beyond a certain limit leads to a changing climate.

Climate change will affect the life of every citizen on Earth. It will affect our water and food supplies, our health, and our environment. As our resources slowly diminish, there will be wars worldwide with people trying to grab the last of the resources. Think about this, if we cannot survive on the resources we have today, how do we expect future generations to survive on much fewer resources?

 

Leading a zero waste life will ensure that everyone around the globe has equal access to resources. It also ensures that we leave behind plenty of resources for future generations. If every single individual turned to a Zero Waste lifestyle right now, we could end climate change and global warming within this lifetime. But, of course, expecting the whole world to switch to a Zero Waste lifestyle right this second is preposterous. However, small steps toward a Zero Waste lifestyle will ensure that our future as humans and the future of the Earth are safeguarded.

Author

  • The author has done a master's in Environmental science and is currently working as chief Environmental Advisor with New Delhi State Government.

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