The amount of waste we produce on the planet has never been higher, especially with rapid population growth, booming economies, rising urbanization, and rising living standards. Our current throwaway society and hyper-consumption cultures lead to shorter and shorter life cycles for products, especially for electronic equipment, which puts pressure on the demand for rare materials and precious metals required for their manufacturing. Waste is an issue as it represents the inefficiency and misallocation of resources that are used for production, such as natural resources, energy, and water. Furthermore, the high amount of waste we produce threatens our ability to live sustainably, as it is often dumped in landfills, puts pressure on land, and contains polluting elements that are difficult for nature to decompose and can build up in harmful ways. Consequently, there is a lot of pressure nowadays on countries and cities to manage waste more sustainably.
The term “zero-waste” was first introduced by Dr. Paul Palmer in 1973 as a strategy to recover resources from chemicals. Today, zero-waste is an alternative philosophy to our current industrial model that encourages the redesign of resources’ life cycles in a circular way so that all products are reused or recycled. It is an economical alternative to current waste systems that may be challenging to implement but would result in environmental, social, and economic benefits. For instance, the recycling and reusing of resources could reduce companies’ costs in the long-term as they would no longer need to extract resources for production. Overall, zero-waste can be understood as a business tool that minimizes waste in support of sustainability by protecting the environment, reducing costs, and creating jobs in the management and handling of waste.
It is important to consider that the pressure to improve waste management systems is not the same across the globe. Developed countries produce nearly three times more waste than developing countries. However, the amount of waste produced in developed countries has stabilized over time and pressure has been put on improving waste management systems by introducing more recycling facilities and reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills. On the other hand, the amount of waste produced in developing countries is rapidly increasing, and yet there are no adequate waste management systems in place, resulting in much of this waste being dumped in landfills where they pollute the local environment and threaten the health of workers and nearby populations. Furthermore, developed countries often illegally smuggle their waste to developing countries, as it is more affordable than to invest in properly treating or recycling this waste. This is particularly true for e-waste, or waste from electronic and electrical equipment, which contains toxic substances that may be released into the environment if the waste is not disposed of properly. Overall, this means that the challenges of waste production will disproportionately impact developing countries.
In order to achieve zero-waste, changes will have to occur at both the producer and the consumer level to ensure behavioral adaptations. This entails producer and consumers taking responsibility, 100% recycling of municipal waste, legislated zero landfill and incineration, and 100% resource recovery from waste. It is also crucial that zero-waste strategies be affordable, manageable, applicable, effective, and sustainable.
First, producers must design products in a way that they are easy to recycle, assess the life cycle of products before they are manufactured, apply a closed-loop supply chain management in which products are made from recycled or reused materials rather than extracted ones, and apply product stewardship by taking the responsibility for the impact of the product from before its manufacturing to its end of life. For example, companies could have a take-back system where producers take back products once consumers stop using them, or have voucher systems that offer incentives for consumers to return waste. Then, companies employing clean production strategies that minimize waste and emissions should use eco-labels and use environmental awareness strategies to encourage consumers to buy these greener products.
As for consumers, they should reduce waste by purchasing durable and reusable products and applying the 3 R’s: reducing their consumption, reusing products, and recycling those that are no longer of use. Furthermore, sustainable consumption can be encouraged by shifting towards accountable societal and intergenerational wellbeing through more responsible industrial design and new social and individual norms. Education is a promising strategy at the consumer level as it can provide them with the knowledge, values, and skills that will enable people to become drivers of sustainable change.
Achieving zero-waste will be a challenge, with the main barriers being the short-term thinking of producers and consumers, the lack of consistency in legislation about recycling and waste management across states, and the lack of willingness to pay. Furthermore, countries and cities would have to undergo significant structural changes in terms of how they manage their resources in waste in order to make the reusing and recycling of products possible. Overall, it is crucial that consumers and producers alike be made aware that waste is actually a precious resource that still has value. Improved waste management systems and changes in our consumption patterns play a key role in ensuring that today’s cities will develop sustainably.
Written by Gwen Aubrac