Zero waste is possible: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: the zero-waste movement.

It was an incredibly complex task, a combined effort of every single person in the world. But we managed: plastic waste can now be found everywhere on Earth, including its most remote parts. Plastic pollution is so widespread that researches argue it can be used as one of the indicators of a new geological era, Anthropocene. And that’s only one of the residues we so generously share with nature.

The zero-waste movement has been around since the 70s, but we are not even close to a world where “all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use”. So forgive my skepticism, but is zero waste even possible?

The complete picture

Imagine buying a carton of orange juice with a Zero Waste logo on it. (Never happened to me, by the way, but hypothetically speaking.) It seems fair to expect that there is absolutely no waste related to the production of the juice. Sounds very hard to achieve, doesn’t it? But then the region of your brain responsible for life-cycling thinking kicks in and you realize it’s even worse: production is only one part of the life cycle. We also need zero waste throughout the entire supply chain, use phase and end of life…

Do you still believe in “zero waste” orange juice?

When “zero” means “almost zero”

I could end the article here and state that it is probably impossible to produce anything without generating waste. Luckily, to induce positive change, the people behind the zero-waste movement set though but achievable goals for the industry. To be certified as Zero Waste brand in the USA, you need to divert at least 90% of your waste away from the environment, landfills and incinerators.

This last part is a very important detail, sometimes overlooked. Combustion generates energy, so one can argue that waste incineration at least helps minimize the use of fossil fuels. But with well-developed solar and wind energy technologies, waste incineration is not an advantageous solution. The requirements force you not to take shortcuts. Learn to reduce waste and rethink your products.

Redefining waste

Let’s agree with these requirements: 90% waste diversion is good enough to become a Zero Waste company. Still, not many businesses have reached this goal. Reducing overall waste generation is an important starting point, but you will soon find yourself in a position where the little trash you do generate still ends up in a landfill or incinerator.

For a clue to what is the next step, take a look at the definition of the word “waste”: unwanted matter or material of any type, especially what is left after useful substances or parts have been removed. The solution is in the word “unwanted”.

Finding new applications for the waste – considering it a substrate, material, resource – that’s the key. Recycling is the obvious example here, as long as you use recycled materials and not just segregate your waste. That is the idea behind biorefineries, where every waste stream becomes an input to another process, to create additional products. This aspect of Zero Waste resembles the circular economy – they both target closing the loop.

Zero waste is possible: myth or not?

Status: busted.

Reaching the absolute zero is an extremely challenging goal, which is probably not doable for all industry branches. However, with the combination of technology developments, conscious product design and a change in people’s behavior, the idea of (almost) zero-waste products, cities and countries can materialize.

Last month, European countries discussed the options for a circular economy in which materials and products are recycled as much as possible. Some interesting initiatives were mentioned, such as the Mars program to change their packaging to 100% recyclable or recoverable (so far they reached 82.5%). Importantly, life cycle assessment is used to make sure that selected materials really are the best for the environment and not only seem to.

The importance of effective collaboration between the European member states was stressed. Together, the countries are working towards a common EU stance, and to get a new waste package off to a good start.

To finish with a positive vibe, remember Pete Seeger’s song:

If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired

Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold

Recycled or composted

Then it should be restricted, redesigned

Or removed from production.

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the eighth part of our ‘Sustainability Mythbusters’ series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use common sense and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Katarzyna Cenian

LCA Expert

Kasia worked for PRé from 2016 to 2022. As an LCA expert, she contributed to implementing databases and impact assessment methods, providing support for SimaPro customers and conducting LCA studies. With her analytical mindset and way with numbers, she navigated through large amounts of data efficiently and effectively. Over the years, she was involved in both technical projects – related to data conversion and complex modelling – and LCA studies ranging from screening, ISO-compliant and related to EF methodology.

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