In primary school I was introduced to the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. At school and at home, we sorted cans, glass, and cardboard for recycling. All the messages focused on recycling with a secondary emphasis on reusing, and little to no focus on reducing our waste. Zero Waste is a whole systems approach to waste reduction.
Today, advocates have expanded on the three R’s and frequently include a variant of the following: redesign, refuse, and rot.
Redesign: goods should be designed to minimize their resource use, including packaging. A smart manufacturer should understand that waste is wasted profit. Though this is corporate responsibility, as consumers we can ‘vote with our dollars’ and buy long lasting, durable goods.
Refuse: As consumers we should refuse freebies (pens!), refuse printed receipts (opt for an emailed receipt), and refuse purchasing products with excessive packaging.
Rot: In lieu of throwing out compostable items, compost organics and encourage your community to establish curbside compost and/or biodigesters.
Your compostable waste is packed so tightly at landfills that it will not decompose. As I continue to learn more about sustainability and regeneration, I’ve learned it’s not about the last two R’s I learned about as a kid, but really about the first neglected one: reduce. We need to focus on REDUCE-ing our resource use to create a truly sustainable society.
Zero Waste, as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance, is a means of “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity or waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.” The process is similar to that found in nature, wherein resources aren’t disposed of to never be used again but are truly reused and recycled into new life.
Last year, following the lead of other worldwide communities, the city of Fort Collins adopted a Zero Waste plan. The plan focuses on four priorities:
Culture Change: raise awareness!
Reduce and Reuse: those other two R’s we learned in primary school!
Compostable Organics Out of Landfills: Rot!
Construction, Deconstruction and Demolition: divert debris from construction related activities!
The expansion of the city recycling requirement for construction projects and the development of a waste management plan is a move in the right direction. This is addressing the third-R and for those of us working with the built environment we should look for ways to promote zero waste throughout the design, construction, operations, and deconstruction of projects.
As we move forward we need to adopt zero-waste sensibilities at home, at work, and in the community. If you follow design blogs and periodicals trend pieces, you are aware that minimalism and tiny house living are gaining traction and are closely aligned with zero-waste principles. Many of us are unlikely to achieve the levels of BeaJohnson and her family’s trash reduction to less than a quart a year or of Beth Terry’s eschewing of plastic from her life, but each decision in reduction is a move towards a community I want to belong to. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi said it best, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Connett, P. (2013). The zero waste solution: untrashing the planet one community at a time. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Humes, E. (2012). Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash. Penguin.
McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. MacMillan.
Royte, E. (2007). Garbage land: On the secret trail of trash. Back Bay Books.
Blogs and websites:
Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry http://myplasticfreelife.com/
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson http://www.zerowastehome.com/
Zero Waste Fort Collins http://www.fcgov.com/zerowaste/
Trashed (2012) documentary with Jeremy Irons