#ZeroWasteWeek was trending last week. But is the Zero Waste dream really achievable? Giles Crosse, Content Coms Green Guru, dispels a few myths.
Across the UK last week, homes and businesses took part in Zero Waste Week. The project is a grassroots campaign, raising awareness of the environmental impact of waste and empowering participants to reduce waste.
The idea is for millions of people around the world to reduce waste through reuse, recycling and repurposing material for a longer life.
But, in truth, the solutions to waste are very complex. They involve global industry, trade and profit. Indeed, the very basis of today’s economy requires fundamental change to combat waste.
What is Zero Waste, and what can be done to achieve it?
Zero Waste is in its aspirational sense a very simple goal; to reduce the amount of materials we use that aren’t recycled or composted to zero.
But of course, as soon as you examine the details, things become more complex. If an old plastic bottle is burned to make energy (called incineration), not recycled, does that still count as Zero Waste?
Or, if a plastic bottle that was manufactured very efficiently, using very little CO2 or energy isn’t recycled, is that worse for the planet than recycling one which used lots of energy in inefficient production? Remember, recycling itself takes energy, and has CO2 impacts too.
For these reasons, the simplicities of much Zero Waste campaigning, and those powerful calls to action don’t really stack up in the real world. Most of us want goods, like flatscreen TVs, whose components we can’t recycle.
Even more fundamentally, we all need hospitals, but the syringes must be individually packaged in sterile, expensive, hard to recycle packaging for health reasons. Who among us would consent to a reused syringe?
So the truth is, Zero Waste is a useful goal, but it can’t become reality for many years yet, if ever. What can be done is to consider the best ways for society and industry to improve sustainability. And that’s where the circular economy comes in.
What is the circular economy?
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is leading the race to a circular economy. In the Foundation’s words, a circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.
The circular economy is about designing things right to begin with, at global and industrial level, so that recycling is easy if or when products finish their useful life. When we get this right, Zero Waste has a shot at success.
With a circular economic model, the flatscreen TV we previously couldn’t recycle would be designed differently, so it could be easily and profitably recycled, or reused.
The circular economy is vital, because individuals like you or I can’t really change how a flatscreen TV is made. This is up to manufacturers. Globally, these need to be shown the potential and the possibilities of more circular industries.
Then, you and I just need to drop our TVs off to the Council for recycling, when hopefully, in the future, they are designed better for this purpose.
All of this is complicated. But essentially, for Zero Waste to work, the circular economy needs to become a reality. Then, big manufacturers could sell us products we would willingly recycle.
It all goes to prove that the biggest aspirational, environmental challenges, require buy in from industry, not just activists on the street. As ever, a combination of forces conspire for the greater good.