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Defining Zero Waste

Defining Zero Waste

The front page of the just-released draft zero waste plan for my home state—Maryland—boldly announces its goal to reduce, reuse and recycle nearly all waste generated in the state by 2040. The draft certainly contains some admirable proposals. Yet, as I read it, I realized that the plan didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether it was a waste management plan or a materials management plan. And in those two words—“waste” and “materials”—lies all the difference in the world.

For me, this difference struck home at this year’s WasteExpo, where I had the good fortune to moderate two panels. One was on the future of diversion, the other on zero waste. Eight people, representing private and public sector recycling and organics management programs, were on the diversion panel. The zero waste session had representatives from Subaru and Daimler Trucks. Both companies have aggressive zero waste programs at their manufacturing plants.

Although the two panels would seem to be covering pretty much the same ground, they didn’t. The diversion panelists talked about what to do with products when they are no longer needed. They discussed waste management through recycling, composting or anaerobic digestion, and debated the opportunities and pitfalls for those options, along with realistic recovery rates and costs. They were clearly engaged with the immediacy of avoiding disposal.

The zero waste panel had a slightly different take. Clearly, waste management is an important aspect of zero waste programs. Both companies use recycling and composting to help them achieve their zero-waste-to-landfill goals. They also have a materials management strategy to find ways to eliminate waste from their manufacturing process. That way, they will have fewer materials to be managed at the end of the pipeline. Think of it as a dentist fighting cavities by preventing tooth decay.

Of course, the zero waste panelists were concerned with the specifics of their immediate facilities. As a result, they only skimmed the surface when it came to sustainable materials management or the most important choices to make when designing a product.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has become a big advocate of sustainable materials management. The agency would have us consider the entire life cycle of a product instead of being concerned only with the immediate problem of managing waste. This means the amount of waste generated during a product’s life cycle is more important than the amount generated at the end of its life.

A product might be unrecyclable, but that is acceptable if its overall environmental footprint is lower. This is anathema to zero waste advocates, who are most concerned about managing the end of the pipeline. They call a product “garbage” if it can’t be recycled, even if that product has a lower environmental footprint and creates less waste overall than an unrecyclable competitor.

The confusion between waste management and materials management is a problem in zero waste plans, which tend to rely heavily on waste management strategies. These plans aim to decrease disposal through recycling and organics management. That’s good, but it’s not enough. These plans need to get into nitty-gritty details about materials management.

If we are truly interested in achieving zero waste, we need to get away from the emphasis on waste management and embrace the more challenging goal of sustainable materials management.

After all, 2040 is closer than we think.

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