Zero Waste: Reality or Fantasy?

With more companies and communities diverting waste from landfills, incinerators and waterways, could a zero-waste planet be possible someday?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- Last weekend, the New York City Department of Sanitation held an indoor composting workshop to teach residents how to turn their kitchen scraps into rich organic fertilizer while reducing their carbon footprints, with the help of worms. (Worm bins were for sale for $44. Kids in particular were keen on the idea.)

In 1993, the year that New York City launched the NYC Compost Project to provide compost education and outreach, the idea of "zero waste" wasn't in the public mindset. But today, with the grassroots growth of the environmental movement and the success of the 2007 animated documentary The Story of Stuff about the lifecycle of material goods, and the 2009 documentary No Impact Man about a New York City family's year-long experiment to have a sustainable zero impact on the environment, the concept has taken a foothold in the public consciousness.


The peer-reviewed internationally accepted definition of zero waste was developed in 2004 by the Zero Waste International Alliance:

"Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health."[1]

The various systems that support the zero waste philosophy include recycling, reuse, composting, freecycling (exchanging stuff for free with others), bans on plastic bottles and single-use plastic bags and, of course, consumer education. All these various strategies are meant to prevent waste from ending up in landfills, incinerators and waterways.

Rampant, unchecked consumerism has plagued the (mostly Western) world since the rise of the middle class at the turn of the 20th century[2]—and it has resulted in bigger landfills (and a massive swirling island of trash), much of it made out of stuff that will take thousands of years to biodegrade. (Do I need to even mention the fact that radioactive waste takes 3 million years to decay?) Considering everything that a skyrocketing human population produces, consumes and discards—not least of all the scatological content (thanks for tackling that one, Jack Sim)—the very notion of zero waste in many ways seems like a utopian ideal more suited for the realm of sci-fi.


But the idea is neither far-fetched, nor is it something that has captured the imagination of only urban elites: Eliminating waste safely and sustainably is something that for many people has become a necessary goal for short-term survival.

For Ovina Hurtado, a community leader in Punta Alegre, a small remote town situated along the Gulf of San Miguel in the Darién Province of eastern Panama, unsafe sanitation practices like waste disposal in waterways is Public Health Enemy Number One—a source of disease that also threatens safe water sources for future generations. In her battle for cleaner streams, she has joined forces with EcoLogic, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit that empowers rural people to restore and protect tropical ecosystems—which includes helping families construct latrines that convert waste into compost that can be used as fertilizer.

"[This work] is important because EcoLogic is motivating us to obtain clean water," said Hurtado. "It has opened our eyes, so that we are more cautious and we do not damage our environment. Aside from EcoLogic, we were abandoned, like all the governments have done."[3]

Six thousand miles away in northern Tuscany, Italian elementary school teacher Rossano Ercolini has been fighting against incinerators since the 1970s, after mounting a successful campaign to stop the construction of one in his hometown of Capannori, which later became the first municipality in Italy to announce a zero waste goal for 2020. Ercolini, who won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize, has helped squash 50 incinerator proposals across the nation, which now boasts 117 zero-waste towns that together encapsulate a population of around 3 million people.

"Incineration is no longer wanted or needed in these areas," said Ercolini. "Instead, they have established comprehensive recycling and composting systems guided by zero-waste goals. This has helped improve community health and has sparked strong collaborations between communities and local governments."[4]


But it's not just local communities that have to deal with the problems of waste management. In the United States, keeping trash out of natural public spaces is a monumental task. Every year, millions of people visit one of the country's 400 national parks. That means a lot of eating, drinking and the production of thousands of tons of waste.

ARAMARK (RMK:US), an American food service and facilities provider that is a leading concessioner of national and state parks and forests, launched the "Green Thread" program in 2008 to reduce its environmental footprint by implementing long-term environmental stewardship policies covering supply chain, food purchasing, building operations, energy and water conservation, transportation and waste management.

"Preserving our natural spaces for future generations is a top priority for us," said Allison Gosselin, director of environmental sustainability for ARAMARK's Parks and Destinations Division. "Through our on-the-ground environmental stewards, partners and help from guests, we've been able to keep 2.8 million pounds of waste from reaching landfills since 2010."[5] Proving that it doesn't take very long to clean things up, the company has doubled its landfill diversion rate in just three years.

One of the local success stories happened at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California, where ARAMARK began a community-based composting coalition through which more than 60 percent of the conference ground's waste are funneled through the coalition's composting and recycling program. The company is extending Asilomar's waste production method across all of its properties, with an aggressive goal of reducing company-wide food waste by 55 percent by October 2013.


Diverting waste from waterways, landfills and incinerators is one way to reduce our environmental footprint, but it's also important to look at the other side of the supply chain, and making the transition to packaging that is made from environmentally-friendly materials that are biodegradable or even compostable. However, one of the difficulties for packaging manufacturers has been to identify what kinds of materials fit the bill and what exactly the overall environmental profile of their packaging looks like.

Now, thanks to a new test that determines how well various types of packaging material decompose under industrial composting conditions, packaging manufacturers—and companies keen on developing the "cradle-to-cradle" business paradigm—will be able to know just how eco-friendly such products are.

The test, developed by the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST), determines whether materials meet standards for compostability set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), an international standards organization that develops voluntary consensus technical standards. It includes three testing protocol stages performed over a minimum of 120 days: a disintegration trial (i.e., how well the material will break down in a stable environment), a plant germination trial (i.e., how well it will germinate seeds) and a biodegradability trial (i.e., how much CO2 is generated).

Armed with this kind of information, packaging manufacturers "may make certain claims regarding compostability in their marketing," said WIST executive director Paul Fowler.[6] And those claims, in turn, will help buyers make more Earth-friendly purchasing decisions—something which is becoming increasingly important for the growing legions of conscious consumers.


"It was very different before," said Ovina Hurtado when asked how different life is today from when she was a child. "It was tranquil. There was no agitation. We lived on agriculture, fishing, and hunting. Nowadays almost all of that is finished. There is nothing. We have damaged all the habitats and the things we get from the sea are scarce because of the contamination."[7]

By many measures, from the melting Arctic to the deforested Amazon, her assessment is sadly all too true. But while the days of living in complete harmony with nature may be a thing of the past, the increasing numbers of communities, companies, local governments and scientists driving towards sustainable waste management solutions around the world signal that the idea of a zero-waste planet may someday be a reality. Considering the fact that the human population is expected to grow from 7 billion today to 9.6. billion by 2050, it better become one.

In 1982, the American experimental documentary film director Godfrey Reggio released a remarkable dialogue- and narration-free "visual tone poem" called Koyaanisqatsi, featuring hypnotic music composed by minimalist maestro Philip Glass and breathtaking cinematography by Ron Fricke. The film opens with the famous pictogram of mysterious figures in Horseshoe Canyon in Utah's Canyonlands National Park and moves on to powerful and disturbing images of how we modern humans have used and abused the natural environment—from mining sites to oil fields, atomic bomb detonations to nuclear power plants, skyscrapers to assembly lines. It is a startling yet beautiful audiovisual essay that serves as a blunt reminder of the damage we have wrought on the planet in a frighteningly short period of time. The film's title comes from the Hopi word meaning "life out of balance."

If we ever figure out how to make zero waste a reality, perhaps a new film should be made—entitled Lomakatsi. It's also a Hopi word, but it has a better ring. It means "life in balance."



1. Zero Waste International. Global Principles for Zero Waste Communities Accessed August 16, 2013.
2. One the earliest critiques of consumer consumption appeared in American economist Thorstein Veblen's seminal 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class.
3. Global Giving. Bringing Clean Water to Coastal Panama. March 7, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2013.
4. Jen Soriano. A World Without Landfills? It's Closer Than You Think. July 27, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2013.
5. Aramark. Reducing Waste is a Full Time Job at America’s National Parks. July 31, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2013.
6. University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Compostability testing now available. December 21, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2013.
7. Ecologic. Community Leader Ovina Hurtado in Panama. Accessed August 16, 2013.


image: Birds scavenging for food amidst the debris at the Danbury Landfill in Danbury, Connecticut, 1991 (credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider, Flickr Creative Commons)