Can you explain the “Zero Waste” movement in Europe, Australia and elsewhere that goes beyond recycling to reduce waste?

Can you explain the “Zero Waste” movement in Europe, Australia and elsewhere that goes beyond recycling to reduce waste? How can we make it happen here in the U.S.?

—Neil Weiss, Methuen, Mass.

In essence, “Zero Waste” is a design principle writ large, whereby products are conceived, produced, packaged, distributed and retired with their long-term environmental impacts in mind. According to the non-profit GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), “Zero waste maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.” GRRN is calling on companies to take responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products and packaging, and on governments to not subsidize non-recyclable waste processing.

“Waste is the result of bad design,” says Eric Lombardi of EcoCycle, a recycler in Boulder, Colorado. “The concept of zero waste leads upstream to the designer’s desk, where waste needs to be designed out.” Lombardi, a leading light in the fledgling U.S. zero waste movement, lays out four basic principles for achieving zero waste: (1) Make producers responsible for the waste their products create; (2) invest in infrastructure rather than in more landfills and incinerators; (3) end taxpayer subsidies for wasteful and polluting industries; (4) and create jobs and new businesses around the re-use of discards.

While the concept has been slow to catch on here, it has been standard practice in parts of Europe and elsewhere for over a decade. In fact, some 25 countries require companies to take back their packaging, and some have gone so far as to mandate “Extended Producer Responsibility” laws, whereby companies must pay for the waste generated in the production, packaging and distribution of their products.

In Germany, a 1991 ordinance seeking to address packaging waste was a huge success. By 2000, the agencies charged with collecting and recycling such materials were recovering over 90 percent of the plastics and glass used in German packaging. (In the U.S. we reclaim 5.3 and 26 percent respectively.) Another success story comes from Australia, where its capital city, Canberra, embarked on a “No Waste by 2010” campaign in 1996. By 2001 the city had reduced waste sent to landfills by 40 percent and more than doubled the garbage it captured for reuse. The city also began fueling two of its power stations with re-captured methane gas from its landfills, which is plentiful enough to power 3,000 homes for 30 years.

In the U.S., industry has continually put up roadblocks to any serious consideration of adopting such initiatives at the federal level. But, according to the Zero Waste International Alliance, at least 18 local communities have taken it upon themselves to adopt their own strategies for achieving zero waste. These include a dozen California cities and towns; Boulder and Summit counties in Colorado; Carrboro, North Carolina; the Central Vermont Waste Management District; and the cities of Seattle and New York.

“Zero waste is about challenging the ruling paradigm that says we can manage waste safely in landfills and incinerators,” says GRRN’s national coordinator, Bill Sheehan. GRRN helps coordinate efforts to implement zero waste campaigns in the U.S., and offers a wealth of free resources on its website.

CONTACTS: GrassRoots Recycling Network, ; EcoCycle, ; Zero Waste International Alliance, .